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.

I’ll grant that Cain has flashes of funny stuff in it. In Genesis after Adam and Eve are evicted from the Garden they have children who go off to marry people who live elsewhere; no getting around that. So Saramago casts that idea, in all its implications of “hunh?,” using his style of long run-on sentences held together by commas. In Cain adam and eve are speaking in a back and forth with the angel guarding the entrance to the garden:

They sat down on the ground and discovered that the angel azael wasn’t one to beat about the bush, You are not the only human beings on earth, he began, Not the only ones, exclaimed adam, astonished . . .

. . . Then eve asked, if other human beings already exist, why did the lord make us, As you know the ways of the lord are mysterious, but, as far as I can make out, you were an experiment, Us, an experiment, exclaimed adam, an experiment to prove what, Since I do not know for certain, I cannot tell you, but the lord must have his reasons for keeping silent on the matter . . .

Another amusing bit is when god changes appearance from the first congenial companion at the start of adam and eve’s existence to formal, three-tiered crowned fellow, described so clearly that Saramago must have this sort of image in mind:

Saramago was a communist and atheist. He was a harsh critic of the predominant Roman Catholic church of his day, place, and time. An earlier novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, was published not long before he was awarded the Nobel Literature Prize—much protested by the Vatican. That novel, with a somewhat lighter touch than Cain, casts “scandalous” aspersions on who Jesus was by imaginatively exploring his life outside of the scripturally accounted-for years. That such ground has been well trammeled already takes away from the sense of naughty audacity; see forays into such territory by Pullman and Frey, whose books landed with something of critical thud. Where other reviews of Cain have gone astray is in portraying Cain as also anti-Christian; it is not. Instead it is much more anti-Jewish-foundational-text.

Time travel allows cain to witness horrible events reported in the Hebrew scriptures teased out in all of the stories’ troubling implications. One example suffices: cain speaks with abraham after abraham had bargained with god not to destroy sodom and gomorrah if a few righteous men were found living there; apparently abraham failed. After the destruction is complete, cain points out to abraham that there must have been many, many innocent children who also died. abraham then puts his head in his hands in sickened despair.

cain and Saramago are correct: there would have been many innocent children who would have died. That is, assuming you take the story as historical reportage. Whatever the point of the story was in its original telling—by my best lights it is a condemnation of those who break the laws of hospitality (not a condemnation of homosexuality)—the key is the heroes, the protagonists. Think any action film: the hero goes about battling the villains, cars crash in chase scenes into other drivers and pedestrians who are maimed and killed, or warrior combatants with no name or back-story falling left and right around the antagonists. They are throw-away props for the story.

So I come back around to my initial question: what are stories for? Saramago repeatedly uses those of Hebrew scriptures to cast them as literally true in all of their gory, disturbing implications, to show god as evil. If you grant that these stories were not recorded as if by an on-site video camera would capture, then they are instead participating in myth making written by people over a thousand years after the ostensible events. This is storytelling to find identity and truth for a people. The Hebrews who were writing down these stories were doing so after having been repeatedly, brutally conquered by Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians . . . as they would have themselves done if they had the economic and military power. Their reasoning goes as it does for all conquered people wishing to retain identity and self-respect, “we are a chosen, unique people.” Every tribe, religion and nation has such tales.

Religion gets used as a scapegoat for the evil things done in its name. Behind the parade of horrors performed in the name of the holy is an impulse common to human behavior. The Khmer Rouge did what they did in the name of right political thought; ditto Stalin. Humans are capable of doing things that are sublime—the arts, selfless sacrifice for others—as well as the most vile.

Literature used polemically to skewer religion, or anything for that matter, can sound brittle. Saramago’s writing here comes down to, in my evaluation, the same sort of strident tone as found in any other fundamentalist writings, religious, political or scientific (Dawkins, Harris et al.). Saramago might be aiming for the tradition of Rabelais; I find this book to be closer kin to LaHaye. I’ll take my religion, and my literature, with ample room for ambiguity, gray areas, room to explore and ponder, permission to find where I and the holy might find one another. I follow Jesus, and he mostly spoke in parables.

Now, if you really want some funny, satirical writing that takes on religious matters, try Stanley Elkin’s The Living End. The protagonist is condemned to hell because God hears his first thought on entering heaven: “it looks like a theme park.” My signed, first edition of this novella has pride of place wherever I move.

Comments are disabled for this article.


By Jose Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Reviewed by Grant Barber
176 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 9780547419893
All Days Are Night
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .

Read More >

The Seven Good Years
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .

Read More >

Human Acts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Reviewed by J.C. Sutcliffe

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .

Read More >

Nowhere to Be Found
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .

Read More >

La paz de los vencidos
La paz de los vencidos by Jorge Eduardo Benavides
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .

Read More >

Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology
Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology by Various
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .

Read More >

Berlin by Aleš Šteger
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .

Read More >