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"Cain" by Jose Saramago
Phil Jourdan
A disappointing end to a remarkable and controversial career.

Cain, Jose Saramago's final novel, is another of the author's attacks on religion in general and especially the Abrahamic faiths. Saramago showed how deeply he could cut with his 1991 masterpiece, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a troubling, fascinating retelling of the gospels. In that book, biblical contradictions became a source of delight. With Cain, the source book is the Old Testament, but instead of delighting, Saramago chooses to bully and preach at us. As a sort of prequel to his earlier novel, Cain is unnecessary; as a work in itself it is a mess; and as a conclusion to an important literary career, it doesn't seem to fit. 

Perhaps comparisons to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ aren't fair — after all, this is its own beast, with its own temperament. Sadly, if we don't see it as a continuation of that earlier project, I'm not sure the novel deserves any attention at all. This is because Cain stoops to all the cheap tricks that Gospel mostly managed to avoid. Saramago was careful to humanize Jesus without making his psychology the focus of his text, and his version of the gospels struck an almost perfect balance between satire and tragedy. The world he depicted made sense, the God he insulted was just mysterious enough (for the greater part of the work) for the whole thing not to collapse every time He appeared. There was, in short, an attempt at harmony. It read beautifully as a story and as an anti-religious tract. It showed that Saramago was capable of handling sensitively, a subject far more complex than it is now fashionable to admit.

That's why Cain is such a disappointment. It hasn't got a pinch of subtlety, and the irony has been replaced with adolescent sarcasm. The eponymous protagonist is a cipher for the critic of religion and nothing else; there is nothing to say about him except that he has no personality, that he is there because the book pretends to need a hero, or anti-hero. At the beginning of the novel he murders his brother — an event which, one would have thought, could be described in some kind of detail, so that we might get a better sense of Cain's actions than we are given by the Bible; instead, like so much of the book, we are told only that he "asked his brother to go with him to a nearby valley where it was said that a fox had its lair, and there, with his own hands, he slew him with the jaw-bone of an ass that he had previously hidden, with treacherous intent, in a bramble patch." That's it; perhaps there is no surpassing the simplicity of biblical narrative? We quickly discover, however, that it doesn't really matter why Cain kills Abel. What matters is that Cain is cursed and made to wander forever. 

That gives Saramago a chance to have Cain present at many of the major scenes we all know from the Old Testament. In a weird, inexplicable shift of styles, once Cain has been marked by God and condemned to roam, the only way the author manages to show his protagonist these events is by invoking the concept of time travel. Although he dresses this up in philosophical flourish — there are, for the narrator, "many presents" instead of past and present and future — that is essentially what Cain's journey amounts to: a lot of time traveling. He witnesses the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the battle of Jericho, the misfortunes that befall Job and his relatives, the Great Flood. Nothing of substance is said about these puzzling stories, unless you are happy to count sneers and narratorial denunciations as the substance of fiction. God, as a character — as the only acknowledged bad guy in the story — is about as ridiculous and inconsistent as you'd expect, an autocrat obsessed with glory and power and the obedience of his creations; but because, unlike Saramago's version of Jesus, Cain has no specific cause, nothing he considers worth fighting for, God acts as a foil only to a series of loose plots. While in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ there was a wonderful contrast between the forgivably human Jesus and the angry, incomprehensible (but also perfectly humanized) God, in Cain there isn't any true tension between good guy and bad guy. But this is not because Saramago is willing to grant that such a simple distinction between good and bad is problematic. All we get is a very bad God and a multitude of indifferently depicted secondary characters. There's nothing driving the narrative forward except Saramago's anger. 

A shame, because with source material as rich as the Old Testament, and with his undeniable gift, Saramago could have done something important. The story of the binding of Isaac, for instance, might have served as something more than an occasion to write the following: "Yes, you read correctly, the lord ordered Abraham to sacrifice his own son, and he did so as naturally as if he were asking for a glass of water to slake his thirst… In short, as well as being as big a son of a bitch as the lord, Abraham was a consummate liar, ready to deceive anyone with his forked tongue…" Yes, you read correctly: Saramago, in the last novel he would ever write, could come up with nothing better than calling Abraham a son of a bitch. Perhaps there's something beautiful in that. I don't think so — not when you remember how complex and satisfying his previous fuck-you gestures have been. 

Saramago, in Cain, is as petty as the God he denounces. I suspect even most atheists, of which I am one, will find themselves siding with the believers here, and demand a greater subtlety of thought than can be found in this novel.

Released on October 4th, 2011.