It’s easy to understand why some readers dislike José Saramago’s work. There are the stylistic quirks: pages-long paragraphs, stretches of dialogue broken up only by commas, the relative dearth of punctuation and capitalization, and, in Blindness, arguably his greatest work, the refusal to give proper names to any of his characters. But even if he had adhered to formal stylistic conventions, his views would still have rankled. His vigorous defense of Communism alienated him from the Catholic Church and the world’s capitalists. But it was his unapologetic atheism that provoked the greatest outcry, especially after the 1991 publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, in which a questioning, fallible Jesus lives with Mary Magdalene, and in which Joseph knew in advance of the Massacre of the Innocents, said nothing of Herod’s plans, and saved only his son.
What distinguished Saramago’s work, however, and what made him more than just a skeptic with an attitude, was his compassion and philosophical heft. He did more than just question Catholic dogma and right-wing politics. He thought deeply about the contradictions and discrepancies of accepted wisdom and challenged readers to do the same. His conceits may have been playful—the Iberian peninsula breaking off from the rest of continental Europe in The Stone Raft, or a proofreader inserting a history-altering word into a text in The History of the Siege of Lisbon—but his points were complex and subtle.
Cain, Saramago’s final work, is the Nobel laureate’s last questioning of the gospels. Although it’s an entertaining novel, it’s missing the philosophical rigor of the author’s earlier efforts. The playfulness has taken over, and the result is a story that feels more like a comic riff on the book of Matthew than a thoughtful examination of the hypocrisies of the original text.
Not that Cain doesn’t make valid points. Before the branded Cain travels east of Eden to the Land of Nod, he acknowledges that he killed his brother Abel, but that perhaps God bore some responsibility for the killing because of his refusal to accept Cain’s offerings with humility. Most of the time, however, Saramago uncharacteristically settles for facile evaluations and one-liners rather than trenchant analysis. The knee-jerk reaction to lines like, “…as well as being as big a son of a bitch as the lord, abraham was a consummate liar,” may be to laugh (that was my reaction), but one yearns for the complexity that makes Saramago’s work such a pleasure to read. Even those of us who agree with his sentiments about religion may wish he had at least been sensitive enough to ask why some people take comfort in religious teachings. That balance would have made Cain, like most of Saramago’s earlier works, a more satisfying experience.
As it is, Cain is good for a laugh, assuming that this is the sort of material you’re inclined to laugh at. Even light Saramago is worth reading. But as soon as I finished Cain, I pulled The Stone Raft off the shelf, reread the passage in which Iberia sets sail into the Atlantic, and savored anew the inventiveness that distinguished Saramago as one of literature’s most satisfying mischief makers.
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