Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2021

Cain, a novel, by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

*chuckle* I was going to place a cultural warning that readers who are very religious might not like this book or my review of it, but I see from consumer reviews at Library Thing that a punctuation warning might be more important to some readers!


Cain, the final novel from José Saramago, (1922-2010), is at 159 pages more of a novella than a novel, so it fits the brief for #NovNov (Novellas in November).  But — quite apart from the author’s provocative stance on the Old Testament God and his deeds — although there are chapters to break up the text, there’s barely a paragraph to be seen and the other punctuation crimes include run-on sentences, the absence of quotation marks to signal speech and the lack of capital letters to signal proper names.  I didn’t mind it, I was too busy laughing…

Saramago sets the tone from the start with God’s realisation that he has forgotten to give Adam and Eve the power of speech.  Like many who can’t find anyone to blame but himself, he gets into a temper:

In an excess of rage, surprising in someone who could have solved any problem simply by issuing another quick fiat, he rushed over to adam and eve and unceremoniously, no half-measures, stuck his tongue down the throats of first one and then the other.  From the texts which, over the centuries, have provided a somewhat random record of these remote times, be it of events that might, at some future date, be awarded canonical status and others deemed to be the fruit of apocryphal and irredeemably heretical imaginations, it is not at all clear what kind of tongue was being referred to here, whether the moist, flexible muscle that moves around in the buccal cavity and occasionally outside it too, or the gift of speech, also known as language, that the lord had so regrettably forgotten to give them about which we know nothing, since not a trace of it remains, not even a heart engraved on the bark of the tree, accompanied by some sentimental message, something along the lines of I love eve. (p.1-2)

Cain, as we know from the Bible stories we were told when young, was jealous of Adam because God preferred Adam’s sacrifice, and so Cain bumped him off, earning himself a place in Biblical history as the first murderer.  In Saramago’s novel, this is the first of many occasions when Cain challenges the logic of the lord’s punishments.  In summary, Cain’s argument amounts to this: God, for no rational reason, tests the faith of those who serve him devoutly, (think Abraham, Noah, Job etc) by treating them very badly, and inflicts his punishments on people who had nothing to do with whatever caused the lord’s displeasure, (think of the innocent women in Sodom, whose homosexual husbands had been the catalyst for the lord’s rage.  And the hapless children too, of course.)

Though the role of the bolshie angels is a departure from scripture, and so are Cain’s interventions in God’s plans to reboot the human race with a better version, there is nothing particularly original about Cain’s challenges to Old Testament faith.  Any competent atheist could do much the same, though some of them are a good deal more long-winded and abrasive about it.  (Yes, I am thinking of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens).  What makes this book fun to read is the tone of the narrator, wryly observing proceedings, and occasionally reminding the reader that the present day exists by inserting comic anachronisms, as when God was absent for the launch of the Ark.

God was not there for the launch.  He was busy examining the planet’s hydraulic system, checking the state of the valves, tightening the odd loose screw that was dripping where it shouldn’t, testing the various local distribution networks, keeping an eye on the manometers, as well as dealing with tens of myriads of other tasks, large and small, each of them more important than the last, and which only he, as creator, engineer and administrator of the universal mechanisms, was in a position to carry out and to which only he could give the sacred ok.  Parties were for other people, he had work to do.  At such times, he felt less like a god and more like the foreman of the worker angels, who, at that precise moment, were waiting in their immaculately white overalls, one hundred and fifty on the starboard side of the ark and one hundred and fifty on the port side, for the order to lift the enormous vessel… (p.148)

Cain’s argumentative personality earns him a rebuke from the angels, who warn him that the lord is listening and, sooner or later, he will punish you.

To which Cain replies:

The lord isn’t listening, he’s deaf, everywhere the poor, unfortunate and wretched cry out to him for help, they plead with him for some remedy that the world denies them, and the lord turns his back on them. (p.124)

I heard a woman on TV the other day, spruiking the success of her prayers for the recovery of her loved one.  Good luck to you, I thought, but hey, if my prayers had that kind of power, I wouldn’t be wasting them on the welfare of just one person…

Author: José Saramago
Title: Cain, a novel
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Cover design by Michaela Sullivan, detail from ‘Cain and Abel’ (1542-44) by Titian.
Publisher: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, first published 2009
ISBN: 9780547840178, pbk., 159 pages
Source: Personal library.

 


Responses

  1. Oh, I think I must read this :-)

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    • Anything you can get by Saramago, Jennifer!

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  2. He is a very funny author.

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    • Hi Fay, yes, even when he’s serious, if you know what I mean…

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  3. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Saramago but that was just a couple books. I checked this on Audible and it’s “included” in my premium membership. So I put it into my library and we’ll see how it works with no punctuation and no print. It might be easier. (I didn’t mind in Blindness or in All the Names.

    I read somewhere that Saramago does the no-punctuation style because people don’t speak with punctuation. And Cormac McCarthy didn’t use it for awhile either – I don’t know what happened to that experiment – he was working out of a science lab in New Mexico. – I think you have to be a very careful writer to do it successfully.

    Anyway, I’m very curious. Thank you.

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    • I read something somewhere about how it was innovative when he started doing it, and then ‘everyone’ was doing it.
      He’s right, of course, we don’t speak with punctuation, but it does make things easier to read.

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  4. I enjoyed ‘Cain’, and another wonderful “religious” novel by Saramago is ‘The Gospel According to Jesus Christ’, “religious” in quotes. .

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    • That’s one of his that I don’t have.
      And
      #FamousLastWords a.k.a #TheRoadToHellisPavedWithGoodIntentions…
      I am not buying any more of his books until I’ve read all the ones I got, i.e. The Elephant’s Journey, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis.

      But I am so sorely tempted…

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  5. Yet another book long on my shelves that I must really get to sooner rather than later!

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    • I am pleased to be tempting you. I think you’d enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I liked your last paragraph. I think we do speak with punctuation. Everytime I pause a bit I picture a comma and lately I’ve been speaking more than a few exclamation marks!!! 😄😄😄

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    • I must be one of the few still using punctuation in my SMS. (What is the plural of SMS? SMSs? SMSes? SMS messages?)

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      • SMS Messages I would think and I always punctuate text messgaes. Can’t sleep if I don’t haha

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        • *chortle*
          I think it’s our age, and (fond?) memories of our teachers insisting on correct punctuation…

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  7. I’ve never read José Saramago….this book sounds like a good place to start.
    I had to laugh due to your last paragraph…”power of prayer”. Reminded met on March 2020 start Covid pandemic in US… I saw a sign “Jesus is my vaccine”. After 761K deaths in US…I wonder how that is working out.

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    • LOL, I’ve seen on Twitter that we don’t need to worry about the unvaccinated, Darwin will take care of them! (I mean the ones who’re choosing it of course, not people who are immuno-compromised and can’t have it, and the children, for whom it’s not available.)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Cain by José Saramago (reviewed by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  9. I adore what I’ve read of Saramago and in fact have just started to read his Gospel According to Jesus Christ as part of a Twitter readalong. It’s that wonderful tone of his you highlight that gets me every time – his writing is just wonderful, and I’ll obviously have to add this to the list!!

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    • Oh no *chuckle* you are another temptation for me to buy it, and to weaken my resolve not to buy any more of his books till I’ve read the three I’ve got!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thus sounds like a gem. The passages you include are great fun!

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    • Yes, I really enjoyed it. I like my reading to tackle contemporary issues, but it’s nice to have a break from it as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I haven’t been an atheist since I was a school boy. I just don’t see the point in arguing about things (beings) that don’t exist. This does seem like a lot of fun, though I probably don’t know old testament stories well enough to see the point of most of his jokes. Like Pam, I do talk with punctuation and in fact often struggle with writing to put the emphases and pauses it is so easy to make with an intake of breath

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    • I agree, I don’t see any point in arguing either, and with people who have deeply held belief, I sometimes remember that my mother, who was agnostic, used to say that she knew a lot of people smarter than her who believed in God…
      But I enjoy the Monty Python films, and I enjoyed this in the same spirit.

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  12. Love your review Lisa, and love his writing. My copy of Cain is old and it was the first time I had struggled without dialogue as such. But in no time, you forget that. It is fall-about-laughing funny and so acute in observation. I lapsed as a Catholic a lifetime ago so loved many of the questions that we all, as children, formed in our heads but didn’t dare to ask aloud. Funny and tragic.
    In the Chapel of the Carmine Church in Florence there is the most devastating imagery of The Fall, by Masaccio. The first time I saw it I thought of this book.
    And I’m grateful for the early lesson in doing without speech as I have just read the Booker winner, The Promise, which takes that to new heights!

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    • The Promise? #SmacksForehead I don’t think I even noticed!
      I just looked at the excerpts that I quoted, and they’re all punctuated, I wonder now if I did that myself out of habit, and since it was a library book, I can’t check it!
      (I was more exercised about the awful cover!)

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      • Yes The Promise is an awful cover! But I was utterly compelled – like watching a car-crash. No distinguishing of dialogue or point of view or thinking v speech. Thank god for full stops and commas! And yet …
        So that is Cain, The Promise and Still Life by Sarah Winman now. The death of speech! I need to run screaming back to classic grammar and structure for a bit!
        But all fine books.

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        • O no, not Still Life too! I have that waiting impatiently on the TBR…

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  13. […] Cain by José Saramago (Lisa at ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  14. Sounds a great read …

    Re “I heard a woman on TV the other day, spruiking the success of her prayers for the recovery of her loved one”, what does that say for all those people who pray just as hard as she did but whose prayers aren’t answered? I wonder if people ever think about why some prayers are answered and some not? Do they think they are special? What sort of God is this? Part of me thinks it’s great to have such faith, but my, it often comes across as exclusive and random.

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    • I couldn’t have put it better myself. This type of belief tests my patience, I can tell you!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I’ve got this idea that I’ll love everything Saramago’s written. And, for now, that idea seems to be substituting for actually reading him. *sigh* So many good books. What would be your personal favourite place to begin, I wonder?

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    • I read The Double first, and that set me on the path, so maybe that one?

      Like


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