Although there are still volumes of Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago’s work appearing in English (most recently a collection of short stories, The Lives of Things, with an earlier novel, Raised from the Ground, to appear this year), Cain was the final novel that he wrote. It bears comparison with his earlier The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. It was this savage, satirical attack on religion that led to Saramago leaving Portugal for Lanzarote where he lived until his death in 2010. Although Cain is written in his usual style, with little regard for breaking the story down into the basic components of grammar (sentences and paragraphs), it is a much shorter, lighter read, similar to his previous novel, The Elephant’s Journey.
This is not to suggest that Saramago’s anger has somehow dissipated, though certainly tolerance for attacks on religion (in Western Europe at least) has increased. If The Gospel According to Jesus Christ targeted the New Testament, then Cain targets the Old. From the beginning (and it is the Beginning, the story of Adam and Eve) we are presented with a fallible God:
“When the lord, also known as god, realised that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or even make the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no-one else in the garden he could blame for this grave oversight.”
His humanity is evident when he discovers that Adam and Eve have eaten the apple: he speaks in a “mocking tone” (“the lord’s irony was becoming more and more marked”), but as the authorial voice points out:
“…the lord showed a lamentable lack of foresight, because if he really didn’t want them to eat that fruit, it would have been easy enough simply not to have planted the tree or to have put it somewhere surrounded by barbed wire.”
Angels, too, take on a more human aspect, as when a starving Eve persuades one to collect fruit for them from the now out-of-bounds Garden of Eden (“Alright, I’ll bring you some fruit, but don’t tell anyone”).
Above all, God is seen as proud and cruel. Cain complains of his pride after Abel’s death:
“…you had the freedom to stop me killing abel, which was perfectly within your capabilities, all you had to do, just for a moment, was to abandon that pride in your infallibility…”
Saramago then allows Cain to wander through the books of the Bible: he prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac with God arriving a few moments too late; he witnesses the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; he sees Moses return from Mount Sinai to slaughter those who have abandoned God to worship a golden calf; he joins Joshua in battle, visits Job in his suffering, and finally journeys with Noah. Throughout it is God’s incomprehensible cruelty that mystifies him:
“Burning sodom and gomorrah to the ground had evidently not been enough for the lord, for here, at the foot of mount sinai was clear, irrefutable proof of his wickedness, three thousand men killed simply because he was angered by the creation of a supposed rival in the form of a golden calf.”
Cain is, of course, the ideal accuser: the original murderer, he points out God’s own record when it comes to killing, making it clear he does not accept that all these deaths are necessary:
“What about the children, said cain, surely the children were innocent?”
Ultimately Cain comes up with his own solution in the final chapters when the novel does darken and adopt a bleaker tone. Cain works well as a satire, though its targets may seem rather obvious and easy to hit. It does suggest, however, that in his battle with God, Saramago had the final word.