Cain by Jose Saramago, Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date:  October 4, 2011
ISBN:  978-0547419893


Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, died in June 2010. One of his last published novels is Cain, a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve’s firstborn son. One ordinarily finds a murderer an unreliable narrator. Cain is no exception. Rather, cain isn’t an exception. No names are capitalized, including god’s, the lord’s. I, however, is capitalized—make of that what you will.

How does a reader rely on a narrator who kills with premeditation and refuses to take responsibility? After Cain kills his brother, Abel, portrayed as far from a sweetheart, God confronts Cain. In his view, God showed lack of humility and mercy when he refused to accept Cain’s sacrifices, and then God stood by and let Cain murder Abel instead of intervening. So it’s God’s fault Abel is dead, since Cain murdered Abel because he couldn’t murder God.

God doesn’t take kindly to this and dooms Cain to wander the earth with a mark on his forehead.

Cain wanders in and out of various “present” events. He doesn’t call them the future or the past, just different presents in which he meets various Old Testament characters—the Israelites at Sinai, Joshua at Jericho, Job in Enoch, Abraham at the oaks of Mamre and at Sodom and Gomorrah, and Noah in his ark. Cain’s happiest present is spent in the city of Enoch with Lilith, an insatiable lover and not developed very far beyond that.

Point of view is loose, switching from Cain to whomever is most convenient to the telling of the tale and a sort of Greek chorus which altogether provide an omniscient point of view that I liked. Dialogue isn’t broken into paragraphs for different speakers or punctuated with quotation marks or periods, only commas. This results in run-on, page-long paragraphs of dialogue that should be, and sometimes are, a confusion, but mostly work if you pay attention. Whether the dialogue ought to be interesting and snappy enough without requiring a stylistic device to call attention to it is another question.

In Cain’s view, God “should still take the blame for all the crimes committed in your name or because of you.” Yet God takes no blame for his inconsistent, vain and hypocritical decisions. And human beings who believe in God are fools. The theme is easily born from a literal reading of the Bible by an author who allows no mitigation, no faith interpretations, no allegorical license.

The sacrifice of Isaac and the Sodom and Gomorrah sections seem to me the strongest. In the other sections, God and his demands upon his creations are simply made fun of, like the procedure that brings down Jericho and building a ponderous boat in a landlocked valley. Cain’s strongest objections are roused by the senseless sacrifice of innocence. He agonizes over the children who burned up at Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind finding ten innocent men—what about the children? Why God destroys the innocent in pursuit of the guilty is the novel’s unanswerable question.

Fortunately, there are humorous moments, grim as some of them are, such as Cain’s suggestion to Lilith on page 56 that she kill her husband herself if she wants to be rid of him:  “Men kill women every day, who knows, perhaps by killing him you would start a new trend.”

Neither the novel nor the character offer much in the way of alternative belief or enlightenment. If not God, who? What is the better way? Who has the wisdom to find one? Not Cain. Every incident he witnesses only confirms and adds to his original rage and disgust with God without making him, Cain, a better person. He pursues nothing, drifts with the tide of time and place. He tries to warn people that God isn’t worth their faith. After a while I felt I was riding a one-trick donkey. About the time I would’ve put the novel down, it ended anyway in a nihilistic splash. One must wonder—if no one’s left to tell, who’s telling, and who’s listening?

Cain was at times amusing and interesting, but mostly it was bitter, which never reads well without a clear point and purpose.

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