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.  

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
The Fordist Academic
Frank Scott
Weapons of Mass Distraction Get More Destructive
Missy Comley Beattie
Big Dick Diplomacy
Michael Doliner
Democracy, Real Life Acting and the Movies
Dan Bacher
Jerry Brown tells indigenous protesters in Bonn, ‘Let’s put you in the ground’
Winslow Myers
The Madness of Deterrence
Cesar Chelala
A Kiss is Not a Kiss: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation of Children
Jimmy Centeno
Garcia Meets Guayasamin: A De-Colonial Experience
Stephen Martin
When Boot Becomes Bot: Surplus Population and The Human Face.
Martin Billheimer
Homer’s Iliad, la primera nota roja
Louis Proyect
Once There Were Strong Men
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones
David Yearsley
Academics Take Flight
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail