FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Final Ramblings of a Celebrated Atheist

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Portuguese novelist and Nobel Prize (1998) winner José Saramago’s final novel, Cain, must have been a blast to write, knowing that it would provoke another outrage in his controversial literary career.  We’re all familiar with the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel, but the primary focus of Saramago’s brief, elliptical novel is Cain’s later life—endless wanderings as his curse for the murder of his brother.  Root those wanderings in other Old Testament stories where Cain could never have borne witness, let alone participate, and—at the end—daringly suggest a world devoid of religion instead of the Judeo-Christian content that has been droned into our psyches for two thousand years.  As a story, then, Cain is more than a stretch; but as a philosophical idea, the novel is always interesting.  Margaret Jull Costa must have been in hysterics as she translated the book.

The opening sentence provides the irreverent context that Saramago will employ throughout: “When the lord, also known as god, realized that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were like the two humans, the product of his divine command, had already had a voice of their own, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle.”  The fix—to make them vocal?  “In an access of rage, surprising in someone who could have solved any problem simply by issuing another quick fiat, he rushed over to adam and eve and unceremoniously, no half-measures, stuck his tongue down the throats of first one and then the other.”

No capital letter puts god in his place from the first sentence, though there will be repeated jabs at the deity throughout the narrative.  The question of speech is a more interesting one, implying that man might have been better off with no means of communication.  But then there presumably would be no story either.  Then there are other playful corrections—such as belatedly providing Adam and Eve with navels—and the revelation that human beings were God’s afterthought, “an experiment.”  Obviously, an experiment that failed or at least backfired.  And much, much later in the narrative, “The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn’t understand us, and we don’t understand him.”

Frequently, Cain will have no clear idea where his wanderings take him, though he has a lengthy relationship with Lilith, observes Abraham on the verge of killing his son, observes the genocide at Sodom and Gomorrah, the collapse of Jericho’s walls, Job’s turmoils, and—finally—is given passage on Noah’s ark.  On one occasion he wishes he had a Michelin guide to assist him in his peregrinations.  He compares the ark to an aircraft carrier, and wonders why Noah has to harbor two of every living creature on the earth, including microorganisms.  There will be raison d’etre for that last question at the end of the story.

But before that clever ending—all along the way, in fact—Saramago weaves together contemporary jargon with actual passages from the Bible.  And there are repeated attacks on the deity, such as “The lord is not a person to be trusted,” as well as Cain’s conclusion that “satan is just another instrument of the lord, the one who does the dirty work to which god prefers not to put his name.”  Finally, Cain realizes that what he wants to do is kill god.  In contemporary times, that’s what celebrated philosophers have done.

But Saramago’s Cain does this is a much more original way.  After agreeing to join Noah and his extended family on the ark, Cain decides that he will murder all the human beings on the ship (though two die by accidents), thus leaving the ark—once the water resides—only with creatures that are not human, including those microorganisms mentioned earlier.  So where does that leave mankind?  By my reckoning, nowhere in god’s footprint but in an evolutionary state, which ought to annoy the hell out an awful lot of Americans.  But they are the people who do not read books.

Cain
By José Saramago
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 160 pp., $24

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

December 06, 2016
Anthony DiMaggio
Post-Fact Politics: Reviewing the History of Fake News and Propaganda
Richard Moser
Standing Rock: Challenge to the Establishment, School for the Social Movements
Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi
Warmongering 99 – Common Sense 0: the Senate’s Unanimous Renewable of Iran Sanctions Act
Norman Solomon
Media Complicity is Key to Blacklisting Websites
Michael J. Sainato
Elizabeth Warren’s Shameful Exploitation of Standing Rock Victory
David Rosen
State Power and Terror: From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock
Kim Ives
Deconstructing Another Right-Wing Victory in Haiti
Nile Bowie
South Korea’s Presidency On A Knife-Edge
Mateo Pimentel
Some Notes and a Song for Standing Rock
CJ Hopkins
Manufacturing Normality
Bill Fletcher Jr – Bob Wing
Fighting Back Against the White Revolt of 2016
Peter Lee
Is America Ready for a War on White Privilege?
Pepe Escobar
The Rules of the (Trump) Game
W. T. Whitney
No Peace Yet in Colombia Despite War’s End
Mark Weisbrot
Castro Was Right About US Policy in Latin America
David Swanson
New Rogue Anti-Russia Committee Created in “Intelligence” Act
George Ochenski
Forests of the Future: Local or National Control?
December 05, 2016
Bill Martin
Stalingrad at Standing Rock?
Mark A. Lause
Recounting a Presidential Election: the Backstory
Mel Goodman
Mad Dog Mattis and Trump’s “Seven Days in May”
Matthew Hannah
Standing Rock and the Ideology of Oppressors: Conversations with a Morton County Commissioner
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
#NoDAPL Scores Major Victory: No Final Permit For Pipeline
Fran Shor
The End of the Indispensable Nation
Michael Yates
Vietnam: the War That Won’t Go Away
Michael Uhl
Notes on a Trip to Cuba
Robert Hunziker
Huge Antarctica Glacier in Serious Trouble
John Steppling
Screen Life
David Macaray
Trump vs. America’s Labor Unions
Yoav Litvin
Break Free and Lead, or Resign: a Letter to Bernie Sanders
Norman Pollack
Taiwan: A Pustule on International Politics
Kevin Martin
Nuclear Weapons Modernization: a New Nuclear Arms Race? Who Voted for it? Who Will Benefit from It?
David Mattson
3% is not Enough: Towards Restoring Grizzly Bears
Howard Lisnoff
The Person Who Deciphered the Order to Shoot at Kent State
Dave Archambault II
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Statement on Dakota Access Pipeline Decision
Nick Pemberton
Make America Late Again
Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail