The Cave by José Saramago

The Cave is a novel of many stories. It is the story of an ageing man, Cipriano Algor, finding new love even as his livelihood is threatened. It is a story about families and the development of intimate human relationships. It is the story of the pioneer, seeking a new life away from what once was home. It is the story of technology against tradition, power against the individual, capitalist totalitarianism and revolution. It is a story where the true philosophers are found in all classes and seem more likely to evolve in those whose brains are still active in their fingers, working with the very substance from which we derive; in this case potters and clay. And the list could go on.  Offering a review of the novel would therefore much deplete the ground Saramago tries to cover.

Whilst the unfolding of the characters lives is rendered beautifully, carefully expressing the multiple ways in which people in close relationships communicate through even the most simple of phrases, there is a veiled fear of technology that muddies the waters of Saramago’s ultimate argument in which the cave is shown to be the creation of the Centre who use consumerism to lure more and more citizens under their carefully veiled totalitarian rule. His argument is appealing. The further humans are drawn into the world of advertisements, of wanting for wanting’s sake, of security from the natural world, of simulated experience, the further they are from interacting with the real or natural world and the more they rely upon that simulated world. My only issue is with the terms natural and artificial. Whilst the power dynamics of Saramago’s Centre remain true to comparable corporations in real life, not all ‘artificial’ developments can necessarily be considered bad. I mean, where would we stop? Is Saramago suggesting that anything that doesn’t involve hard physical labour is potentially threatening? I don’t think so, but perhaps there will be a time when a break with modern developments is required. Perhaps consumerism has already bound us to a life in which we stare at a wall of shadows.

That of course is the heart of the novel: Plato’s cave. Deep within the walls of the growing Centre the truth of the prison they are building and developing day by day is uncovered. But when dangerous secrets are redefined as propaganda, the truth is something only a few can see.

In some ways the denouement of The Cave happens rather quickly. How Cipriano Algor’s family gets to the Centre has more page weight than any potential escape. However, the build up to the Centre allows for the development of all the other narratives about creation, love, and the delicate nature of what it means to be a human being. The story of Found, the dog Cipriano finds sleeping in the old kennel in the yard, is central to an exploration of being. Found’s instinct and thought form a huge part of what it is to be human, a bestial nobility that stands in the face of the Centre and its no pet rule, that offers a notion of man as part of the whole of nature, not something that stands outside it.

Ultimately, The Cave is a beautiful and complex novel that pokes holes in our unconscious acceptance of modern life. I thoroughly recommend it.

Next week I’ll be reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, followed by Orfeo by Richard Powers.