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.
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.