With breathtaking imagination, acclaimed Portuguese author Saramago (1922-2010), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, revels in biblical themes for his final novel. When Cain, the first-born son of Adam and Eve, murders his brother in rebellion against God, God shares in the guilt (“you gods should…take the blame for all the crimes committed in your name,” Cain argues) and makes Cain “a fugitive and a vagabond upon the earth.” Cain’s travels across a barren landscape lead him to a lusty tryst with Lilith and the witnessing, or altering, of many key events of the Old Testament (the building of the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah). God appears often and is defined less by his perfection than his faults; He is morally ambiguous, “can’t bear to see anyone happy,” and doesn’t understand his powerlessness in preventing Cain’s meddling. Rounding out the narrative are angels who circumvent God’s will, visions of the urban modernity that the future holds, an ironic description of Darwinian evolution, and God himself touting the heliocentric theory that will cause something of a ruckus five centuries on. Cain’s vagabond journey builds to a stunning climax that, like the book itself, is a fitting capstone to a remarkable career.
Fonte: Publishers Weekly
Abel and Cain have each made an offering to God. Abel’s is accepted, Cain’s rejected. In a fit of jealousy, Cain murders his brother. When God asks where Abel has got to, Cain replies tetchily, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God discovers the murder, and Cain is punished. He will live, but he will be forever marked, and condemned to wander the earth.
In the late José Saramago’s final novel, Cain’s wanderings take him through some of the greatest hits of the Pentateuch. He appears, Zelig-like, at the walls of Jericho just before the trumpets sound, he’s there among the impatient crowds waiting for Moses to descend from Sinai. When Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, Cain is standing there beside him. Actually, it’s Cain who saves Isaac’s life, whatever you may have been told by less reliable sources.
Cain wanders from one present to the next, usually not quite in control of his improbable trajectory. He is even aboard the ark with Noah’s family. The preparations for the launch will lead to an argument with God about Archimedes.
Saramago’s Cain is a murderer – as it turns out, a mass murderer – but also “essentially an honest man”. He’s an innocent, in a world ruled over by a God who is thuggish, petty, unreasonable and jealous. This God has some greatness but is constantly compromised – uniquely rich and supremely powerful and very good at mental arithmetic, but tiresomely stymied by the laws of physics. He’s ineffable, rarely seen, but when he does appear he appears trivialised by banal details. Worse – he’s a god whose behaviour towards his creations is often no better than “wickedness”. The kind of god, remarks Isaac, who would order a father to kill his own son. It is only Cain, who recognises the lord for what he is, and – unlike Abraham, unlike Job – dares to challenge him. The lord is not amused.
Readers of Saramago’s controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ will recognise the irreverence here, but there is more to his anachronistic unpicking of the Old Testament than a mere wish to shock. The assault on all these stories we seemed to know – undermined sometimes in narrative details, sometimes merely in tone – is a subtle and not-so-subtle challenge to what he calls “the official history”.
Saramago is a first-person narrator who keeps himself just out the corner of your eye. He’s often funny, and thought-provoking, and delightfully mischievous, savouring the details of his own defiance. Every little barb, every little twist is absolutely deliberate. Translator Margaret Jull Costa carefully holds the thread of his winding sentences, which snake across pages and pages, running right through the direct speech, one sentence sometimes covering entire, fully-realised arguments and half a dozen switches in register, one moment Biblical-stately, the next earthy and idiomatic. The lord is glorious, magnificent, almighty, eternal, splendid, and also just a son of a bitch.
Cain was composed shortly before Saramago’s death last June aged 87. It’s apparent just how his ferocious intelligence and argumentative atheist glee still blazed. And it’s impossible to imagine he didn’t relish the writing of it.
Daniel Hahn is interim co-director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich
José Saramago reimagines the story of Adam and Eve’s fratricidal son.
“God, most definitely, does not exist,” novelist José Saramago wrote in one of his notebooks in 1994. “And if he exists he is, doubtlessly, an imbecile. Because only the biggest of imbeciles would have created the human race.”
For decades, the Portuguese Nobel laureate angered believers around the world with such utterances. He was threatened with excommunication – a badge of honour for a militant atheist and card-carrying communist – after the publication of his 1991 novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Its protagonist was an all-too-human Christ, plagued by doubt and burdened by worldly carnal appetites.
Cain, the last novel published before Saramago’s death in June 2010, and now translated, will not surprise his habitual readers. Nor will his revisiting of some of the Old Testament’s tales shock as much as his Gospel – though some people will still find much to be affronted by.
Yet anyone disappointed by Saramago’s recent spate of indistinguishable novels, from Seeing (2006) to Death with Interruptions (2008), will find Cain a relief. Not because he renounced his role as earnest defender of the common man, but because Saramago rediscovered qualities he seemed to have lost a while ago: warmth and humour.
There are some very funny moments in this reimagining of the story of Adam and Eve’s fratricidal son. It begins in the Garden of Eden, long before Cain’s birth, at the moment when God bestows the gift of speech on the original man and woman. “Then the creator turned to the woman, And what is your name, I’m Eve, the first lady, she replied rather unnecessarily, since there was no other. The lord was satisfied and bade farewell with a fatherly See you later, then, and went about his business. And, for the first time, Adam said to Eve, Let’s go to bed.”
Cain, their eldest offspring, is condemned to a life of endless wandering after killing his younger brother Abel. On his forehead is the black mark that singles him out as a murderer, but also distinguishes him as being protected by God. He travels around the Holy Land, crossing back and forth in space and in time. Biblical chronology is no obstacle to Saramago’s storytelling.
In the land of Nod he becomes a guard and lover to the insatiable queen Lilith, “as succulent as a ripe pomegranate or as a split fig from which oozes the first honeyed drop”. Elsewhere he prevents Abraham from murdering his son Isaac – the angel tasked with stopping Abraham had “developed a mechanical problem in [his] right wing”.
He witnesses Moses’s destruction of the Golden Calf. He is present at the smiting of Sodom and Gomorrah. He sees the tower of Babel crumble, and finds God and Satan conspiring to wreak havoc on the life of God’s most loyal servant, Job. He even blags his way on to Noah’s Ark. His conclusion, after all this roving, is that “our god, the creator of heaven and earth, is completely mad”. The only alternative explanation – one already mooted in Saramago’s Gospel – is that God might be “evil pure and simply”.
Sex figures prominently, as does scatology. One can almost imagine the old author’s wry smile as he wrote of slave women licking Cain’s semen from his supple “silent flute”, or Noah’s daughter-in-law “all bloody and smeared with excrement” after being trampled by an elephant on the Ark.
Above all, Saramago takes great pleasure in pointing out the gratuitous cruelty of the Old Testament’s God, and the idiocy of the priapic patriarchs who committed atrocities in his name. “The history of mankind”, Cain discovers, “is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn’t understand us, and we don’t understand him”.
Hats must be doffed once again to Margaret Jull Costa, Saramago’s fearless long-time translator, for taming his punctuation-free prose, rendering it not only readable, but enjoyable, and for bringing the late Portuguese author’s often challenging work to a worldwide readership.