Cain by José Saramago

I can’t help it, I really enjoy reading Saramago and his translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Whilst there are books of his I haven’t enjoyed – I’m thinking of The Double – I was looking forward to reading Cain and I wasn’t disappointed. I like the lack of capitalization for proper nouns. I like the lack of punctuation for speech, indeed the lack of paragraphing for speech because despite all of that, you know who is speaking and you also know you are being asked to question the veracity of the speech being written down by an author who didn’t even hear the speech to begin with. So, reading Saramago is a pleasure and the words flow with a compelling retelling of an old story.

Cain is a new version of the Old Testament, one in which Cain challenges God’s interaction with humanity. After killing his brother, something Cain gets God to admit he is partly responsible for, Cain wanders through some of the salient points of the Old Testament (the destruction of the tower of Babel, the near sacrifice of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Job’s trials, the battle of Jericho and so on) witnessing the limits of God’s power and compassion. Eventually Cain challenges God’s will by destroying all life on board the arch leaving God with no new humanity to repopulate the earth, only Cain, whom he has decreed he will not kill. So Cain ends his days arguing with the lord. He says no one will miss the human race. Even the angels, described in every instance as compassionate, have explained that to their mind human beings do not deserve the life God gave them – and by that they mean the freedoms of life outside of heaven. Heaven is as boring as life in the Garden of Eden. But the life the angels covet comes with a price for God, his creations will not always comply with his wishes. God is the foreman in creation and Cain is keen to remind him that there is a greater force than God at work in the universe, perhaps the very force that had Cain wander through time to follow how God manages his human creations.

At first, I was disappointed in the ending of the book because I wasn’t ready for the end of humanity, or the story to end, but perhaps that is Saramago’s point. Really we are a plague upon the earth, polluting and endangering the world and ourselves. Who would miss us? And how could any God, allowing us to live in this way, be more loving, more just, less blood-thirsty than us? When does a parent step in? Usually before serious harm comes from a child’s actions. Perhaps an ongoing debate between God and his creation, between Cain and God, as happens at the end of the novel, is all God could really have hoped for? This God at least?

Cain is a pleasurable way to remind ourselves of the foundations of our culture, of the angry God of the Old Testament who still seems to rule the way we live today. The stories of the Old Testament are so rich, and Cain does them justice, unwinding the threads of civilization with humour and beauty.

Next week I’ll be reading and reviewing The Human Script by Johnny Rich. Then the reading list is as follows: Intuition by Allegra Goodman, Love Life by Zeruya Shalev, The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr.