José Saramago, who died almost exactly one year ago (June 18th, 2010) is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors, though Cain, his last book, is only the second I’ve read. The English version will be published in October of this year, and while I’d like everyone to believe that I’m able to read Portuguese, I was only able to get a copy through my mother’s esteemed editorial position . The book is what early reviews call a “radical retelling” of the Old Testament, tracking Cain as he kills his brother, Abel; is spared but tarred with the “mark of Cain” and condemned by God to life as a vagabond; stumbles upon the Land of Nod and takes up with its queen; observes God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel and Job’s privileged existence; and, finally, helps Noah build the ark and, after the flood, systematically kills or forces the suicide of every person on board to spare the would-be future of the human race the childish, unscrupulous wrath of God. (I suppose I just gave away the ending, which I don’t like to do, but honestly, this isn’t a book you read simply to find out what happens next.) Christians won’t want to read this book (and I probably wouldn’t want to read it if they did) because of its irreverence, and atheists will likely ignore it because it’s about the Bible, but it’s a wonderful, engaging book that adheres faithfully to the famed Saramago style. Meaning, it doesn’t include many periods.
I read my first novel by Saramago last year. Blindness (which, in fact, was made into a very weird movie starring my future husband Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore) was more than just great; published in 1995, it likely largely contributed to Saramago receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. As an author, he is absolutely riveting, and I’m always disappointed more Americans haven’t heard of him. Cain isn’t as good as Blindness (though what is?), but it’s so well and un-obvious-ly written, especially considering the well-worn theme of biblical reinterpretation, that it made even a decidedly non-religious person like me want to go back and reexamine the Old Testament.
The un-obvious thing is key, because the plot might sound, at first glance, more than a bit contrived: Cain realizes that God destroying entire cities (and later the whole world) because of the quote-unquote misbehavior of a few libertines doesn’t jibe with the Lord’s reputation as a loving, benevolent force. God’s expulsion of Adam and Eve from earthly paradise based on what amounts to little more than healthy curiosity (Cain mostly skips over the serpent’s role as tempter and the “frailty, thy name is woman” implications) was, shall we say, a huge overreaction. Job really didn’t do anything to merit the misery that befell him, and God used him as a pawn in an ill-conceived bet with Satan. What revelations! Nothing about Cain’s gradual realization of God’s foibles is new; what does come through, though—and exceedingly well—is Cain’s wrestling with what is one of the most “personal relationships” (to borrow an evangelical phrase) with God in the entire biblical canon. God spares his life after Cain kills his brother and condemns him to an itinerant, lonely life, and this gratitude to God dilutes Cain’s subsequent resentment at not being able to live a “normal” life or marry the woman he loves and help raise his son. Reviews have accused Cain’s character as lacking depth—apparently because Cain has this deep-seated anger toward God that seems apropos of not much—but I couldn’t disagree more. Saramago shows rather than tells and, as the book progresses, the reader receives a very clear sense of why Cain feels personally betrayed by God even as he owes that same God his very life.
Reviews have also pointed out that Cain takes on the role of Satan in this retelling, becoming God’s “accuser” and, in the end, holding God to task for his crimes against humanity, if you will. (Even when Cain kills his brother, Saramago stresses that the murder was inspired by God’s inexplicable favoring of Abel’s sacrifice and thus God’s childish games should be held at least partly responsible for Abel’s death.) So Saramago’s point seems to be that Satan, even when committing crimes of his own (and Cain is by no means an innocent, nor is he portrayed that way), is in fact more morally consistent than God. Which probably accounts for the fact that the book was “controversial” upon original publication and probably won’t find a large audience among Americans when the English translation is released. But I think the danger is not that the book will be excoriated by the devout, but that it will be overlooked by the secular, who may not feel compelled to pick up a book about the Bible. That would, needless to say, be a mistake.