José Sara­m­a­go; Mar­garet Jull Cos­ta, trans.
  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
José Saramago’s final work of fic­tion gives vent to his life­long athe­ism in a sus­tained rant against the God of the Hebrew Bible. Cain, con­demned by God in the Book of Gen­e­sis to wan­der the earth, speaks for the author, roam­ing sur­re­al­is­ti­cal­ly through time as well as space to wit­ness Bib­li­cal events at first hand. He meets Abra­ham and Isaac on Mount Mori­ah, observes the destruc­tion of Sodom and Gomor­rah, enters the employ of Job, and sails on Noah’s Ark. This Cain freely admits that he would like to kill God, and with each episode he builds his argu­ment that God is capri­cious, uncar­ing, and unjust.

The nar­ra­tor sees the bind­ing of Isaac as a demand for blind obe­di­ence, and the destruc­tion of the Tow­er of Babel as pun­ish­ment for act­ing on free will. To Cain, God is arbi­trary and ulti­mate­ly evil in con­demn­ing the hypo­thet­i­cal chil­dren of Sodom to death togeth­er with their elders, and in pun­ish­ing the Israelites for wor­ship­ing the Gold­en Calf. He prefers to trust the ratio­nal­i­ty of human beings.

Such argu­ments might have been fresh in the 18th cen­tu­ry, but Saramago’s invec­tive is nei­ther inno­v­a­tive nor sophis­ti­cat­ed; his polemics and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions resem­ble those of a rebel­lious 14-year-old. His rea­son­ing depends upon a naïve lit­er­al­ism, and he is fas­ci­nat­ed by such things as the excre­ment from the ani­mals on Noah’s Ark. He even invents a car­nal­ly insa­tiable queen in the desert who makes the nar­ra­tor her sex slave.

Saramago’s angry car­i­ca­ture of the Hebrew Bible recalls pub­lic state­ments by the author trac­ing actions of the mod­ern State of Israel to the Book of Deuteron­o­my and declar­ing Israel guilty of a crime com­pa­ra­ble to Auschwitz.” Cain is an unwor­thy last tes­ta­ment by the 1998 Nobel Prize lau­re­ate for literature.

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