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Latest Review: "Cain" by Jose Saramago

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Fr. Grant Barber on Cain, the latest Jose Saramago novel, available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Margaret Jull Costa’s translation.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston. That last biographical fact is one of the reasons his review of Cain is so interesting. (That and the fact that Grant is a very good reader.)

Here’s the opening of the review:

I keep coming back to that basic question, “Why do people tell stories, and others pay attention?” Answers range from creating entertainment (Patterson or Siddons), to engaging in reflections of human nature by a writer such as Conrad or Greene, to intellectual play in novels by Barbary or Murdoch. Some novels can be polemical: Upton Sinclair, Dalton Trumbo; others tell stories to subvert the very nature of what it means to tell stories . . . Celine, Stein. In creating such an incomplete taxonomy I know I run the risk of reducing real literature to caricature; sustaining, elegant, yearning works do more than one thing well. Saramago’s last novel, published here in the English speaking world after his death, raises this fundamental question, “why does he tell this story?”

Cain is a Saramago novel that takes his oft-used “what if” set-up—what if people stopped dying within a geographic region (Death with Interruptions), or what if everyone in a town became blind (Blindness)—and asks, what if cain (Saramago doesn’t capitalize names in this book) were able to tell his story? This is cain of cain and abel, the first two children of adam and eve, the first murderer and victim. Clearly Saramago has a concern for mythos and storytelling; he invokes lilith, by legend adam’s first wife who didn’t work out so well, the breeder of demons. Saramago taps into the archetype of the man cursed to not die but wander eternally. And Saramago uses time travel. cain is unstuck from linear time and jumps from key incidences in ahistorical order, from mt. sinai to abraham just about to sacrifice his son, to noah . . . with stops in there to the story of job, the destruction of sodom and gomorrah. It is this last narrative device which seems both necessary for Saramago’s purposes and which leaves at least this reader with the opinion that Saramago has left behind story telling for a flat polemic.

Some familiar post-modern tricks are going on. In talking about cain—not Cain—or god rather than God could Saramago be signaling that he considers the characters in his book not worthy of being known as proper people, that they are drained of real identity, with their status as fictional characters thus underscored? Perhaps. This is one of several issues that make the role of storytelling wobble . . . does Saramago want to let his writing speak forcefully, or is he undercutting himself unintentionally, “but this is after all, just an artifice?” Then consider the vagaries of time travel literature. The novel ends with cain on board noah’s ark; cain systematically kills all the women by heaving them overboard: no women left who can repopulate the earth. So then, no abraham, moses, job and so forth? But wait, he has already encountered abraham, moses and job. This would leave cain as the only one with complete knowledge, of what could have been, a stand in for god or author.

Click here to read the entire review.



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