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Book Review: Cain by José Saramago

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Since it is a work of fiction, it might not be accurate to call Cain an atheist manifesto. Rather, Nobel laureate’s José Saramago’s final novel is perhaps better described as a tumultuous indictment of the God of the Old Testament.

Although Saramago begins with the story of Cain killing his brother Abel, he uses the result to take it further. God’s judgment after Abel’s death is for Cain to be “a restless wanderer.” In Saramago’s hands, he wanders the Book of Genesis, aided by the fact he can go back and forth in time. Cain visits the Tower of Babel, is present as Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac and joins Noah on the ark, but not in the chronological order in which these events appear in the Bible.

Throughout, it is clear Cain is angered by what he perceives as God’s capriciousness and antipathy toward his creation, an entity “who devours his own children.” In Saramago’s version of events, the devil and other fallen angels rebelled because God is evil. Among other things, God “is not a person to be trusted” and his ease in ordering Abraham sacrifice Isaac indicates such acts are “a deep-seated habit.” If anything, if the God portrayed in the Bible has a conscience, it is “so flexible” that it agrees with whatever God does, regardless of effect or ramifications. Cain even lays Abel’s murder at God’s feet, saying, “[Y]ou were the one who pronounced sentence, whereas I merely carried out the execution.” He believes “god should not go wasting his energies on creating an atmosphere of constant terror and fear,” particularly when he turns his back on the poor, unfortunate and wretched.

Cain is undoubtedly tendentious. And Saramago, who died last year, made his personal position clear when the book was released in Europe in 2009, He said the Bible depicts a “cruel, spiteful, vengeful, jealous and unbearable God” and recommending people not trust that God. Saramago’s style, though, keeps the book from straying completely into the category of screed. Although it sounds the same notes many times, Cain‘s indictment often reflects a touch of humor. For example, when Abraham suggests Isaac forget that Abraham was prepared to kill him, Isaac responds, “I’m not sure that I can.” Likewise, as Cain ponders that situation, he wonders if God would order his own son to be killed if he had one.

The book, being released in the U.S. in a translation by Margaret Jull Costa, who has been translating Saramago’s works for more than a decade, continues some of Saramago’s prior style idiosyncrasies. None of the proper names in the book are capitalized unless they begin a sentence or line of dialogue. This is not so much evidence of disrespect for the Bible as a function of style. Like many of Saramago’s works, the novel contains long passages built not so much of sentences but long clauses separated only by commas. As conversations are not identified by quotation marks, it is only the capitalization of a word that indicates the speaker has changed. What might appear as run-on sentences comes off almost as stream-of-consciousness conversation, although in Saramago’s and Costa’s hands the conversations have an almost colloquial feel. It may, though, take some getting use to, especially for those who haven’t previously read much Saramago.

Cain isn’t plowing any new ground. Critics have long pointed out the God of the Old Testament and Torah seems cruel and unjust. And some Christians classify some of the harshest positions in the Old Testament as metaphorical, not literal, although 3 in 10 Americans view the Bible as the literal word of God. Saramago fans may enjoy the book, a more blunt approach to a subject he addressed in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, an irreverent re-imagination of Christ’s life in which Saramago also displayed some anger. Cain, though, does not rank with works like Blindness, All The Names or Death with Interruptions. Whether relative newcomers to the Saramago oeuvre will enjoy it may hinge as much on their religious viewpoints as anything.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
  • http://www.lunch.com/DrJosephSMaresca Dr Joseph S Maresca

    G-d bestowed free will upon human beings. Sometimes, free will is exercised in constructive ways. Other times, free will is exercised for evil. Without free will, there could be no evaluation of how a
    person has lived.

    Free will involves definitive choices. There is a striking contrast – even in the 10 Commandments. By the way, most of these Commandments deal with things that are in the civil and criminal law itself. i.e. Thou shalt not kill !

    Even atheists and agnostics can embrace many of the 10 Commandments, although not all of them.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com Christopher Rose

    Can one really indict a fictitious character?

    As there is zero evidence to support the notion of the existence of any gods, you are of course able to exert your free will to believe in any old poppycock you want to.

    As to the so called “10 Commandments”, not even all Christians necessarily believe in them all. Why else would the death penalty be legal in the USA, a nominally Christian country? Apparently pick’n’mix is the order of the day!

  • http://toddtsays.blogspot.com Todd Thompson

    Thanks for the review.

    It amazes me that there is such a stark division in the minds of so many people that the God of the Old Testament is so different from the one depicted in the New Testament. Monotheistic religions draw their theologies of God from the same source material, only diverging at the point of Abraham, in the case of Islam, and at the point of the gentile inclusion in the New Testament with regard to christology and mission.

    The tendency to divide God into pre- and post- Jesus is more a matter of self-selecting texts which fit with humanity’s desire for the type of God they want. It poses another strong argument against biblical literalism and the authority of sacred writings.

    I will read this book.

    Todd Thompson