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Cain (Cain)by Jose Saramago
The late José Saramago was quite the prolific writer, having composed over 30 books, including an array of acclaimed novels, poetry, and journals. Actively writing until his death at the age of 87 in 2010, the Portuguese Nobel laureate's international renown was often marked by controversy and criticism. Cain, his final work, was published in his native language in 2009 and stirred many of the same sentiments as his earlier, thematically linked novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.
Cain (with yet another enviable rendering by longtime translator Margaret Jull Costa) begins in the Garden of Eden, wherein God realizes he had neglected to endow Adam and Eve with the gift of speech. Shortly thereafter, Saramago introduces Cain and the well-known tale of his fratricidal encounter with Abel. When called to account for his actions by God, Cain indicts God for his own culpability in the murder. Cain is marked and exiled, and left to wander his many years.
Throughout the novel, Saramago reimagines much of the Hebrew Bible, allowing Cain to appear in many of the most famous Old Testament sites and stories (including the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Jericho, and the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Noah and Ham, Joshua, and Job). Cain's role is most often that of witness, an opportunity he takes to call out God for the needless suffering and cruelty he inflicts on others (including innocent bystanders). The choice of incorporating the most violent and tumultuous biblical episodes into the narrative was, of course, intentional, as one of Saramago's aims was to highlight the vindictive, jealous, depraved, and incorrigible behavior of the Judeo-Christian god.
Colored by Saramago's trademark prose, Cain is a brief yet often funny novel that will serve as the author's final, passing denunciation of organized religion. To many, Cain will be not only objectionable but also heretical. Upon its publication in Portugal, Saramago remarked that while his book had offended the Church, it wasn't likely to offend Catholics, as "they don't read the Bible." He went on to characterize the Bible as "a manual of bad morals," a "catalogue of cruelties and of the worst of human nature." Saramago himself described Cain as "an insurrection, an exhortation for everyone to dare to look for what is on the other side of things."
Saramago's outspoken nature and commitment to a variety of political, international, and human rights issues — qualities he felt compelled to not as artist or author, but as engaged global citizen — was well known. To be sure, many of his novels are books of ideas, parables, or deeply conceived allegories. While his writing was always fluid and graceful, his opinions were often anything but subtle. Cain, while not his most accomplished work, will undoubtedly be seen as an important piece within his distinguished oeuvre. That he was able to continue to craft such vigorous and unequivocal fiction well into his mid-80s is, in and of itself, quite remarkable. José Saramago ought to be remembered as one of the all-time greats of world literature, and whatever praise his writing continues to attract well into future decades will be rightfully befitting.
Like everything else, words have their why and wherefores. Some call to us solemnly, arrogantly, giving themselves airs, as if they were destined for great things, and then it turns out that they were nothing more than a breeze too light even to set the sail of a windmill moving, whereas other ordinary, habitual words, the sort you use every day, end up having consequences no one would have dared predict, they weren't born for that and yet they shook the world.
Recommended by Jeremy, Powells.com
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