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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Cain - José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa

Having read Cain, these are the things I believe José Saramago liked in life:
1. Appositives
2. Himself

These are the things I believe he hated:
1. The Bible
2. Women
3. Conventions of writing

Cain is the story of cain (note item three in the list of dislikes; Saramago saramago does not capitalize names), son of adam and eve.  As is tradition, cain kills his brother abel.  It is recorded as the first murder.  cain is sent away by god with a mark on his forehead and a promise.  saramago stays true to this story but then divulges widely—well, as an example, cain is what you call a


(show spoiler)

.  It works well enough.

Before I get too deep into this review, let me just state I have no problem whatsoever with saramago's personal beliefs—I wouldn't care if he disagreed with me on every matter, as long as he wrote it well.  And sometimes, Cain is written well.  The story is interesting—definitely interesting.  The dialogue between god and cain is witty.  The work as a whole is original.  What gets in the way, however, is the writer himself; he seems so hell-bent on proving the absurdity of judeo-christianity that his story becomes lost in his rant.  I believe this is a classic example of a writer writing for himself, not for his readers.

saramago's commentary includes a negative view of women.  This is in part a criticism of women's role in these biblical stories.  And if it stopped there, I wouldn't consider it further.  saramago, however, adds his own stories in the mix, call them fantasy pieces where cain gets to fulfill his desires with a cast of women.  In the novel, cain plays the role of god's questioner.  He hates god and hopes to outsmart him—seemingly, saramago is fond of the character of cain, an idea backed by the author's frequent interruptions to rally behind cain.  It wouldn't be a stretch to say that cain is likely representative of the author himself.  Despite the urgency of disproving god, however, there seems to be time to stop for girl after girl after girls—and of course none of them can get enough.  These fantasies are foreign and only distract from the story.

I have heard much of the brilliance of saramago's Blindness, a novel I still intend to read one day.  Some who have raved about it have mentioned saramago's lack of conventions—sentences without punctuation, quotes that run into one another without markings, et cetera—a clear allusion to what it is like to be blind.  Perhaps.  Cain, however, lacks these same standard rules of writing; their absence in Cain certainly doesn't make as much sense.  Maybe saramago just didn't like quote marks and periods and paragraphs.  He loved a run-on though:

"The lord turned on the woman and asked, What is this that you have done, The serpent beguiled me and I did eat, Liar, deceiver, here are no serpents in paradise, Lord, I did not say that there were serpents in paradise, but I did have a dream in which a serpent appeared to me, saying, So god has forbidden you to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden, and I said no, that wasn't true, that the only tree whose fruit we could not eat was the one that grows in the middle of paradise, for we would die if we touched it, Serpents can't speak, at most they hiss, said the lord, The serpents in my dream spoke, And may one know what else the serpent said, asked the lord, trying to give the words a mocking tone that ill accorded with the celestial dignity of his robes,  The serpent said that... " [word count so far: 156; remaining words to end of conversation where period is finally placed: 276]

He also loved appositives (non-English nerds, please refer to explanation and examples of appositives).  Note also the usage of esoteric and convoluted language:  

"From the texts which, over the the centuries, have provided a somewhat random record of those remote times, be it of events that might, as 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..."

Clearly there were things I strongly disliked about Cain, but that's not to say the novel was bad.  It was an interesting and largely well-written story.  saramago brings to the surface several questions of religion that should be addressed, and he does so in a entertaining manner.  What hinders this work more than anything is the author getting in the way, both in his rantings and (lack of) style.

Cain is not for the timid reader.  It is potentially offensive to many; further, it can be confusing.  The style becomes easier to follow once one gets used to it, but the language continues to evade throughout.  But at least it is “simple enough for anyone to understand,” right saramago?

"Yes, that is the usual formula used to explain what appears to have happened here, the future, we say, and we breath more easily, now that we have placed a label on it, a docket, but, in our opinion, it would be clearer to call it another present, because the land is the same, but has various presents, some are past presents, others are future presents, and that, surely, is simple enough for anyone to understand."

< play audio file “crickets_chirping.wav”>  Exactly. < /end audio file>