three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
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0

A-CainRenowned Portuguese novelist and Nobel laureate José Saramago passed away in June 2010 at the age of 87. Saramago's experimental works have been translated into 25 languages and have collectively sold more than two million copies. Cain, a satirical retelling of the Old Testament, was his last novel. Recently reviewed: The Elephant's Journey ( 4 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2011)

The Story: Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, becomes jealous when his brother Abel's offering of meat pleases God while his own gift of vegetables is rejected. In a fit of anger, Cain kills Abel, and God dooms him to roam the earth as an outcast. Unexpectedly, however, Cain argues with God, claiming that He is partially responsible for Abel's death because He did not prevent it. God, unused to being challenged, agrees with Cain but cannot rescind his sentence once it has been spoken. Cain is soon wandering through the tales of the Old Testament, squabbling with God and serving as an outspoken witness to His brutality and ineptitude.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176 pages. $24. ISBN: 9780547419893

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Readers of Saramago's controversial The Gospel According to Jesus Christ will recognise the irreverence here, but there is more to his anachronistic unpicking of the Old Testament than a mere wish to shock. The assault on all these stories we seemed to know--undermined sometimes in narrative details, sometimes merely in tone--is a subtle and not-so-subtle challenge to what he calls ‘the official history.'" Daniel Hahn

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody." Robert Pinsky

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"If Saramago's storytelling is softly ironical, the logic behind his wit is implacable: Either god is evil, or he is mad. ... To god's inscrutable words and deeds, Saramago juxtaposes an eminently readable narrative of work and poverty, class and desire, knowledge and timelessness--one in which god too, as he faces cain in the wake of Noah's ark, emerges as far more human than expected." Roberto Ignacio Díaz

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"With Saramago, the tongue is always in the cheek, the eyebrows always arched, the nose raised, eyes forever rolling. ... Unlike some of Saramago's other novels--Blindness (1995), The Stone Raft (1986)--Cain is neither original nor particularly provocative." Ian Sansom

Richmond Times-Dispatch 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Proper nouns aren't capitalized; exchanges of dialogue appear as long, quote-mark-free sentences in which commas demarcate speakers; and a single paragraph can (and often does) occupy several pages of text. Off-putting? For Saramago newbies, yes--at least initially. But they should find their eyes adjusting quickly as Saramago's smooth writing voice sweeps them into a swift stream of amusing blasphemies." Doug Childers

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Once Cain begins his wanderings--essentially time travels through a succession of celebrated Bible stories that take up the rest of the book--things decline sharply. To put it plainly, in this last book the aged author seems to have lost some of his transforming magic, and perhaps even his interest in his principal character; also a measure of control." Richard Eder

Critical Summary

What could persuade a reasonable and fair-minded god to endow his creations with curiosity and will and then punish them for it? Saramago offers his own answers as he boldly fashions an inventive but eerily familiar world from these Biblical stories. His irreverent tongue-in-cheek humor derives from the interweaving of "profound moral questions ... with deadpan intrusions of mock-naïve common sense" (New York Times Book Review). Some readers may be offended by Saramago's portrayal of God as a petty, cruel, and sometimes bumbling tyrant, and others may be put off by his idiosyncratic style--run-on sentences, irregular punctuation, and a lack of quotation marks. Cain may not be Saramago's best, but, in many ways, this thoughtful exploration of the human condition is a fitting close to a brilliant career.

Also by the Author

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1994): This controversial novel, a kind of counterpart to Cain, retells the life of Jesus Christ through the stories of the New Testament. Saramago's portrayal of Jesus as a flawed and fallible man so offended the Portuguese government and the Catholic Church that the novel was withdrawn from the European Literary Prize shortlist. In protest, Saramago moved to the Canary Islands, where he lived until his death.