José Saramago, Cain

For a while there, it looked like the career of the late Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago, who died of organ failure last June, was going to end on a decidedly down note. The Elephant’s Journey, which was published in North America in the months after his death, was undercooked and across-the-board forgettable. Two recently translated volumes of memoir were similarly slight.

Yet one of those, a collection of blog posts, hinted at a final novel that would return Saramago to one of his favourite pastimes: putting secular (and usually blasphemous) spins on Christian mythology, in the process giving believers a poke in the ribs too pointed to ignore.

So it’s a great relief to say that Cain exists. What’s more, it fully delivers on that promise. A revisionist take on the Bible’s first murderer, it’s as savage and disruptive a book as Saramago has ever penned.

The religious goading begins on the first paragraph of the first page, when god (all names are lower-cased), realizing he forgot to give adam and eve the power of speech, rushes over and “unceremoniously, no half-measures, [sticks] his tongue down the throats of first one and then the other.” Our mischievous narrator notes that this might have only been a metaphor, but the damage is done. Now we know precisely what kind of book we have on our hands: apocryphal, and wildly so.

As in the Book of Genesis, the cain in Cain does kill his brother out of jealousy. And god does put a mark on his forehead, sentencing cain to wander the earth. But Saramago adds little twists at each turn. During cain’s conversation with god following the murder, for instance, he argues that since god could have stopped cain’s hand, they really ought to share the blame. The creator agrees, adding, “but don’t tell anyone, it will be a secret.”

That theme of going off the biblical record to get the truth is a recurring one. As is the notion of eternal wandering. For reasons that he doesn’t understand—and upon which god does not elaborate—cain develops the ability to shift through time. Accordingly, he comes face to face with several of the Old Testament’s greatest hits. He sees the walls of Jericho collapse, the architects of the Tower of Babel squabble in different languages, and Job’s body become needlessly ridden with boils, all up close and in person.

Sometimes he intervenes directly. As abraham is about to kill his son, in order to prove his commitment to following god’s every request, cain jumps in to stay his hand. It turns out an angel was sent by god to do the same thing, but he couldn’t remember which mountain he was assigned to.

The guiding principle at work is that of humanization. Not just of cain, whose name is now shorthand for evil itself, but also of supposedly virtuous celestial beings. Saramago argues that if god and his angels exist—emphasis on the if—they’d almost definitely be susceptible to the same pride, vanity, and general pettiness as we are. We were made in his image, after all. And while that’s hardly a new idea, Saramago imbues Cain with his usual thoughtfulness as well as the distinctive elegance and verve of his sentences, which are, as always, captured beautifully by Margaret Jull Costa.

Ever the storyteller, Saramago knows to save his knockout blow to the end. No spoilers, of course: let’s just say it involves a stowaway on Noah’s ark and an honest assessment of humanity’s contributions to the planet. The scene is downright chilling. That it was written by a man whose own health was already in sharp decline, and who could easily have turned to religion as a comfort, rather than continuing until his dying day to pick holes in it, makes it more than a little brave, too.

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Thomas Allen, 176 pp, $27.95, hardcover

(review originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, November 13, 2011)

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