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July 8, 2011 10:07 pm
Cain, by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99, 160 pages
“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.
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