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It is rather difficult to know what one should feel while and after reading Jose Saramago’s Cain.
On the one hand, Saramago’s sly reimagining of the Cain and Abel story is almost too clever by half, yielding unexpected upendings of familiar Biblical tales. On the other, it ends almost exactly as it begins – with a petty, tyrannical god and the whole of creation seeming arbitrary at best, meaningless at worst.
In this way, it seems like a companion to one of Saramago’s best-known works, The Gospel According To Jesus Christ – the book which led to the author’s self-imposed exile from his home country of Portugal when it enraged the county’s Catholic community. That book was published in 1991, and Cain came out in 2009; Saramago’s last novel before his death in 2010.
In both novels, Saramago depicts god (he uses the uppercase “G” in The Gospel, but resolutely sticks to a lowercase one in Cain) as fallible, and his treatment of the humans he has created as callous.
But while The Gospel navigates this theme through the character of a Jesus who slowly wakes up to the nature of god, Cain is told through the titular character – the world’s first murderer according to the Bible, and a character who begins his journey already denouncing his relationship to the Almighty.
Yet, the Cain of Saramago’s novel seemingly can’t be rid of his connection to god either. Not only does he literally wear god’s mark on his forehead – the Mark of Cain that protects him from harm but curses him with an eternal life of wandering as a vagabond – but he also becomes somewhat of a Biblical time traveller, appearing in the familiar Old Testament stories such as those of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot, Abraham and Isaac, and Noah’s ark.
Even Lilith makes an appearance, as ruler of the Land of Nod and for a time, Cain’s lover.
Like Cain in the Bible, Saramago’s Cain murders his brother Abel, when it appears that god favoured Abel’s offerings more than Cain’s. But while Saramago retains the very broad strokes of the stories, he also takes them apart and reassembles them as odd and often darkly funny things.
For instance, when god confronts Cain about his crime, Saramago’s Cain throws the blame back – if god, knowing Abel was about to die, did nothing to stop it, then was god also not culpable? Saramago’s Cain even goes a step further, saying he killed Abel because he couldn’t kill god.
Saramago’s prose can be difficult to get used to for the uninitiated – his long sentences without periods, the lack of differentiation of dialogue, not using capitalisation for names, and often not naming which character is speaking.
But in Cain, the style somehow trips along, adding a sense of urgency to events that stretch over large swathes of time. They also conceal a wry sense of humour that can easily be missed, but is quite delicious when caught, like this passage:
“We’ll be dead in no time, said adam, no one has ever taught me how to do anything. I can’t dig or work the land because I have no hoe and no plough and if I had, I would have to learn how to use them and there’s no one in this desert to teach me, we would be better off as the dust we came from, with no will and no desire, You speak like a book, said the angel, and adam felt pleased to have spoken like a book, he who had never studied.”
However, Saramago’s Cain is not satire or parody, and for all its dexterity of plot and language, its ending feels like a journey that has promised us enlightenment, only to tell us there is none to be had. Which perhaps is the point.
When awarding Saramago the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, the Nobel committee described his writings as “parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony”. Meanwhile, Saramago himself often described himself as a pessimist. I can honestly think of no better way to describe Cain than as a pessimistic parable.