Cain by José Saramago

cainCain is the last novel by José Saramago and I was somewhat afraid that for this reason it might lack that wit, originality and playfulness which characterize his earlier books. But it soon turned out that this was not case, and Cain isn’t just an afterthought at the end of a lifetime, but an excellent, fresh novel – it’s a worthy closing piece of a great oeuvre.

Even though the protagonist of the novel is Cain, the story starts not with him but with Adam, Eve and their life in Paradise. But Saramago deviates from the usual depictions of Paradise right at the beginning, and he makes God out as a rather ridiculous being. It turns out that God is not pleased with his creations: Adam and Eve cannot speak, and God knows that he has to blame himself for this. To rectify the situation, he swiftly and thoughtlessly places tongues in their mouths and then leaves them to fend for themselves in the Garden of Eden. Afterwards things happen more or less in the way known from the Bible: Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise; their children are born; Cain kills Abel, after which God punishes him by marking his forehead and by condemning him to eternal wandering. And the real story unfolds during the course of Cain’s wanderings.

During his ramblings, Cain sometimes unexpectedly finds himself at different, unknown places and times, and this way he witnesses several well-known Biblical events: he’s there when Abraham is getting ready to sacrifice Isaac; he’s there when Jericho is destroyed; and he’s also there when Satan tempts the god-fearing Job. And Cain doesn’t only observe these events – he often interferes, and tries to change them. After living through a whole lot of bloody and cruel episodes, his opinion about God deteriorates rapidly, and he gives voice to his doubts during his bitter and passionate arguments with God.

It’s quite obvious from the very beginning that Saramago’s God is neither benevolent, nor fearsome, nor omnipotent. And while we follow Cain’s adventures, we get more and more proof of his impotence, and we can ascertain that this God is dumb, inconsistent, cruel, selfish, indecisive, inhuman, and prone to making one mistake after the other.

Of course we should bear in mind that we see God’s actions through the eyes of the first murderer of humankind. Cain is by no means irreproachable – he’s an impetuous, instinctive, stubborn, and rather immoral man, and he often gets into unpleasant situations due to these characteristics. So it’s rather ironic that Cain dares to criticize God even though he’s very much like Him. Still, in the end Cain – with all his human weaknesses and sins – appears to be a wiser and more humane being than God with his godly weaknesses and sins.

As regards the style of the novel, it’s the same as the style of the earlier works of Saramago: the sentences are paragraph-long; the dialogs are not set apart from the descriptive parts in the usual way; and the narrator often comments ironically or pragmatically on certain events, and he addresses these comments directly to the reader.

I guess that Saramago’s stylistic oddities and his disrespectful, doubting, desecrating tone might not equally please every reader. As for me, I highly appreciate his unique style and playfulness, and I don’t find his tone disagreeable because I feel that behind all his lack of respect, there’s the philosophy that human beings are the most sacred and precious entities in this world.

But even though this novel features Saramago’s trademark humanism, Cain is still his most bitter and pessimistic novel I’ve read so far (I don’t know all his books yet.) Cain’s wanderings and time travels seem to be postmodern, somewhat aimless games for a while – but then it turns out what consequences these travels have, and the end of the story leaves the reader with very little hope for humankind.

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All the Names by José Saramago

Although José Saramago appears to be quite popular in Hungary, I consider All the Names to be one of his lesser-known works. I have several acquaintances who read Blindness, or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but relatively few who read All the Names. But as it happens to be one of my favorite novels (not only by Saramago, but generally and all-time) and I re-read it every two or three years, I hope I might promote this wonderful book with this blog post.

All the Names tells the story of Senhor José, a fifty-something, indistinct employee of the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths who lives alone in a small house attached to the side of his office building, which has a half-forgotten door leading directly into the office. Senhor José leads an uneventful life, but he has one innocent hobby which one day changes everything. Senhor José collects newspaper clippings and biographical data concerning the most famous people of his country, and he likes to take advantage of the unique position of his flat, and steal into the office during the night to find and copy the exact biographical information pertaining to the famous people in his collection.

One night, however, he happens to grab the papers of an obscure woman together with the papers of the famous people, and he is at once seized by a philosophical hunting instinct. Although he never used to be a person prone to useless, metaphysical musings, a strange sensation overcomes him now, and he starts pondering about the unknown woman. He realizes that the life of the woman is in fact no different and no less interesting than the life of any arbitrary TV star, sportsman or bishop who are only famous because of the momentary whim of their fans or their flock. Consequently, argues Senhor José, the unknown woman deserves just as much attention as any world-famous personality. Senhor José therefore decides to find the woman – albeit it’s not at all clear for him why he wants to do so. The rest of the novel is the story of his search for the woman. During the search, he is greatly assisted by his strict, sarcastic boss, and he meets several people who sometimes help him and other times hinder him in his undertaking – an undertaking which ends in quite an unusual way.

I try to find a good way to sum up what makes All the Names such an exquisite novel, but it’s not easy, as I feel that the overall effect of the book is much too subtle to be put into simple words. First if all, the story of the novel is a very good one: it’s the archetypal story of a search, and as such, it abounds in symbols and allusions. We have a labyrinth here with the corresponding Ariadne’s thread, several obstacles to overcome, and a fearless detective, Senhor José. Apart from all these, the novel also features absurd elements (such as the graveyard scene, of which I will not tell you anything as it’s one of the most entertaining and philosophical episode in the novel and I don’t want to spoil your pleasure), and these go nicely hand in hand with the trivial details of the everyday life of Senhor José – and the way the incredible and the bluntly uninteresting details are mixed provides the novel with a unique flavor.

Then of course I must mention Saramago’s style and language usage. The story is told by an invisible, omnipresent, omnipotent and exceedingly ironic narrator, who, during the course of actions frequently engages in conversation with Senhor José. In these conversations he either provides Senhor José with instructions as to the best ways to conduct his search, scorns him for the mistakes he made, or simply talks to him about the theories of life and death. I consider these philosophical conversations the best parts of the novel, as they also make me think about topics such as what makes a person alive or dead.

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with José Saramago, I have to add that his language usage can be a wee bit distracting or frustrating at first, as instead of inverted commas, he only uses capital letters to indicate that a dialog is going on, moreover, he lets his sentences and paragraphs flow through the pages with hardly any breaks. This way every chapter seems to be a long, curvy, boundless river in which it’s easy to get lost. However, once you get the rhythm, the text is immensely enjoyable, and just as before, I could hardly tear myself apart from the novel.

But even if it might be somewhat difficult to grasp the meaning of Saramago’s long, periodic-style sentences, reading the novel would still be worth the effort, if only for the pleasure of the perfect, epiphanic last couple of paragraphs. Saramago has a unique talent of writing unforgettable story endings. I remember I had the same sensation earlier, while reading one of his other novels, Baltasar and Blimunda. The final paragraphs were so overwhelming, creepy and enthralling that I wouldn’t have regretted reading the whole novel if there hadn’t been any other sources of pleasure in it, only those magnificent sentences in the end. And it’s just the same with All the Names: though it’s immensely beautiful and enjoyable from the very first page, the last paragraphs make it even more perfect for me.