Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Saramago's Cain

Cain / José Saramago; translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2011.
176 p.

This is the last posthumous work by Saramago -- I recently read his memoir, translated after his death; it was very Saramago, and I enjoyed it very much.

This novel is quite different. He is very sharp with his religious opinions in this one, so much so that I found it almost a screed rather than a novel. The basic story follows the character of Cain as he is cast out for killing his brother Abel, and then moves throughout time to become a character in many other well-known moments in the biblical story -- such as when Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, and it is Cain who saves him. Episodes like this occur in most of the places that Cain finds himself, and he complains to and about a God who is inconsistent, vainglorious, and demanding. Cain is a strong-minded individual who has a strong sense of himself and his place in the world. He is grounded in the here and now, and is a sexual being as well as a physical labourer. His concern is for this world, not in following the dictates of a capricious Lord. Through his strength of mind and his long association with The Lord, they begin to develop a bit of a relationship that goes beyond a minion worshipping his betters.

It didn't grab me the way some of his others works have. But it was interesting to read, and to figure out where and who Cain was going to encounter next. As someone who is intimately familiar with bible stories, thanks to my youth, I was intrigued by the skewed vision of the stories I've read; a different perspective changes things, certainly. But I also felt that Cain was a rather one-sided figure, a puppet for Saramago's own strong views on religion and culture. Rather than a story that unfolded organically, it was carefully orchestrated to provide examples of what Saramago wanted to say. And while he is certainly entitled to his opinions, and entitled to write a parable of sorts which illuminates them, it didn't make for a deeply engaging novel. It didn't have that kind of world-weary sympathy for the characters which I have enjoyed in his other works, even those which express similar themes. The writing style he is known for is in full flight though, and I loved it as much as ever.

The ending was a bit discombobulating. I'm not sure yet what to make of it. But it's a book full of vim and vigour -- it would make a fabulous book club selection as there are sure to be strong opinions on both sides amongst readers. I'd love to discuss this one myself, as there are moments where I would like to ask WTF? and then other moments which I found both clever and incisive. It exhibits Saramago's intellect wrestling with tradition and is worth reading for the ideas he raises, even if you don't agree with all of them yourself. I found it more of an intellectual exercise than an emotionally satisfying novel though. If you're a Saramago fan or someone who likes to imagine alternate lives for neglected characters in well known stories you will probably want to read this one.


  1. The best painting I ever seen.

  2. Hmm... I do have an e-galley of this yet to read, and I'm interested in Saramago's fiction about religion (I also have a copy of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ), but I have a low tolerance for polemic in the guise of fiction. A strong point of view is fine, but not if it overtakes the story itself. I'm intrigued by your discussion of the ending, though, so I'll still try to make time for this; I'll just lower my expectations for an engaging story.

  3. Jeff - this image is really representative of Cain's view of God! Perfect choice by designer.

    Teresa - Perhaps I was too harsh -- there is a story but I found it rather blunt. Still, I enjoyed reading it because it's Saramago. Just not as enjoyable as his other work that I've read (which is nearly everything he's written)

  4. I am not sure if this is my sort of read, but it sounds interesting.

  5. Kailana - I'm not sure either, but as I think back on it I see lots more I'd love to talk certainly makes you think...


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