Cain - José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa When I saw that Harold Bloom had reviewed José Saramago's last novel in a recent issue of the NYRB, I was tempted to give the book three stars, unread, on principle alone. Unfortunately, for all his bombast, ego & condescension, Bloom can be a penetrating critic, and I am forced to agree with his conclusion that "what goes wrong in Cain is...its incessant tendentiousness: it has too palpable a design upon us."

I'd like to understand Cain as the first draft of something that might have evolved into another in the long tradition of works that question God and his purposes, beginning in The Bible itself with Job and continuing into the present with the likes of James K. Morrow, Nikos Kazantzakis, Thomas Burnett Swann, Thomas Mann, etc.

There are parts of the book where you can see Saramago beginning to develop a theme - the anger of Cain in the face of God's apparent cruelty and capriciousness - but it remains poorly developed beyond a sophomoric petulance on Cain's part and an insouciant arrogance on God's as the passage below shows. Cain, condemned to wander the earth permanently marked by God for Abel's murder, has come upon Noah and his family building the ark. When he asks Noah what he's doing, God appears and the following exchange occurs:

That's where your wrong, lord, we did see each other, only you didn't recognize me, in abraham's tent by the oaks of mamre, before you destroyed sodom, An excellent piece of work that, clean and efficient, and more importantly, definitive, There's nothing definitive in the world you created, poor job thought he was safe from all misfortunes, but your wager with satan brought him poverty and made of his body a running sore, at least that was how he was wen I left the land of uz, Not any more, cain, not any more, his skin has healed completely and his herds and flocks have doubled, now he has fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand asses, And how did he manage that, He bowed to my authority, he recognized that my power is absolute, limitless, that the only person I have to account to is myself, that I never have to concern myself with considerations of a personal nature, and that I am endowed, let me say this to you now, with a conscience so flexible that it agrees with whatever I do, And what about job's children, who died beneath the rubble of a house, A minor detail of little importace, he'll have another ten children, seven boys and three girls, to replace the ten he lost, Just like the animals, Exactly, after all, children are the same as flocks, nothing more. (pp. 136-37)

Though Cain acknowledges the ambiguity of life, there's no serious grappling with the issue in contrast to Mann's The Tables of the Law. In that book, there's a back and forth between Moses and Yahweh, where Moses can criticize God and God can acknowledge the justice of those criticisms. In Cain, as Bloom points out in his review, both characters - Cain & God - are crudely drawn and don't come alive.

And if the potential for greatness (or goodness, at least) is there in parts of this book, the reader needs a more thorough exploration of Cain's rebellion and the wisdom he acquires in his enforce wanderings. As well, we need more than a sociopathic deity who has no greater motivation for his actions than to satisfy his ego.

I can't recommend this book - rather I'd recommend those authors I mentioned above - but I am intrigued by the snippets of Saramago's Gospel According To Jesus Christ Bloom quotes in his review & may check it out.

A final note that has little to do with my analysis of the book (such as it is): The annoying lack of punctuation beyond the comma, period and the occasional, initial capitalization (I didn't get lazy in the passage transcribed above; it's straight from the book). I don't know why the book is punctuated this way (ambiguous punctuation reflects life's ambiguities?). What I do know is that it posed sometimes serious obstacles to what enjoyment I got from reading the novel.