Cain, a novel, by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

*chuckle* I was going to place a cultural warning that readers who are very religious might not like this book or my review of it, but I see from consumer reviews at Library Thing that a punctuation warning might be more important to some readers! Cain, the final novel from José Saramago, (1922-2010), is at 159 pages more of a novella than a novel, so it fits the brief for #NovNov (Novellas in November).  But — quite apart from the author’s provocative stance on the Old Testament God and his deeds — although there are chapters to break up the text, there’s barely a paragraph to be seen and the other punctuation crimes include run-on sentences, the absence of quotation marks to signal speech and the lack of capital letters to signal proper names.  I didn’t mind it, I was too busy laughing… Saramago sets the tone from the start with God’s realisation that he has forgotten to give Adam and Eve the power of speech.  Like many who can’t find anyone to blame but himself, he gets into a temper: In an excess of rage, surprising in someone who could have solved any problem simply by issuing another quick fiat, he rushed over to adam and eve and unceremoniously, no half-measures, stuck his tongue down the throats of first one and then the other.  From the texts which, over the centuries, have provided a somewhat random record of these remote times, be it of events that might, at 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 so regrettably forgotten to give them about which we know nothing, since not a trace of it remains, not even a heart engraved on the bark of the tree, accompanied by some sentimental message, something along the lines of I love eve. (p.1-2) Cain, as we know from the Bible stories we were told when young, was jealous of Adam because God preferred Adam’s sacrifice, and so Cain bumped him off, earning himself a place in Biblical history as the first murderer.  In Saramago’s novel, this is the first of many occasions when Cain challenges the logic of the lord’s punishments.  In summary, Cain’s argument amounts to this: God, for no rational reason, tests the faith of those who serve him devoutly, (think Abraham, Noah, Job etc) by treating them very badly, and inflicts his punishments on people who had nothing to do with whatever caused the lord’s displeasure, (think of the innocent women in Sodom, whose homosexual husbands had been the catalyst for the lord’s rage.  And the hapless children too, of course.) Though the role of the bolshie angels is a departure from scripture, and so are Cain’s interventions in God’s plans to reboot the human race with a better version, there is nothing particularly original about Cain’s challenges to Old Testament faith.  Any competent atheist could do much the same, though some of them are a good deal more long-winded and abrasive about it.  (Yes, I am thinking of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens).  What makes this book fun to read is the tone of the narrator, wryly observing proceedings, and occasionally reminding the reader that the present day exists by inserting comic anachronisms, as when God was absent for the launch of the Ark. God was not there for the launch.  He was busy examining the planet’s hydraulic system, checking the state of the valves, tightening the odd loose screw that was dripping where it shouldn’t, testing the various local distribution networks, keeping an eye on the manometers, as well as dealing with tens of myriads of other tasks, large and small, each of them more important than the last, and which only he, as creator, engineer and administrator of the universal mechanisms, was in a position to carry out and to which only he could give the sacred ok.  Parties were for other people, he had work to do.  At such times, he felt less like a god and more like the foreman of the worker angels, who, at that precise moment, were waiting in their immaculately white overalls, one hundred and fifty on the starboard side of the ark and one hundred and fifty on the port side, for the order to lift the enormous vessel… (p.148) Cain’s argumentative personality earns him a rebuke from the angels, who warn him that the lord is listening and, sooner or later, he will punish you. To which Cain replies: The lord isn’t listening, he’s deaf, everywhere the poor, unfortunate and wretched cry out to him for help, they plead with him for some remedy that the world denies them, and the lord turns his back on them. (p.124) I heard a woman on TV the other day, spruiking the success of her prayers for the recovery of her loved one.  Good luck to you, I thought, but hey, if my prayers had that kind of power, I wouldn’t be wasting them o

Cain, a novel, by José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

*chuckle* I was going to place a cultural warning that readers who are very religious might not like this book or my review of it, but I see from consumer reviews at Library Thing that a punctuation warning might be more important to some readers!


Cain, the final novel from José Saramago, (1922-2010), is at 159 pages more of a novella than a novel, so it fits the brief for #NovNov (Novellas in November).  But — quite apart from the author’s provocative stance on the Old Testament God and his deeds — although there are chapters to break up the text, there’s barely a paragraph to be seen and the other punctuation crimes include run-on sentences, the absence of quotation marks to signal speech and the lack of capital letters to signal proper names.  I didn’t mind it, I was too busy laughing…

Saramago sets the tone from the start with God’s realisation that he has forgotten to give Adam and Eve the power of speech.  Like many who can’t find anyone to blame but himself, he gets into a temper:

In an excess of rage, surprising in someone who could have solved any problem simply by issuing another quick fiat, he rushed over to adam and eve and unceremoniously, no half-measures, stuck his tongue down the throats of first one and then the other.  From the texts which, over the centuries, have provided a somewhat random record of these remote times, be it of events that might, at 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 so regrettably forgotten to give them about which we know nothing, since not a trace of it remains, not even a heart engraved on the bark of the tree, accompanied by some sentimental message, something along the lines of I love eve. (p.1-2)

Cain, as we know from the Bible stories we were told when young, was jealous of Adam because God preferred Adam’s sacrifice, and so Cain bumped him off, earning himself a place in Biblical history as the first murderer.  In Saramago’s novel, this is the first of many occasions when Cain challenges the logic of the lord’s punishments.  In summary, Cain’s argument amounts to this: God, for no rational reason, tests the faith of those who serve him devoutly, (think Abraham, Noah, Job etc) by treating them very badly, and inflicts his punishments on people who had nothing to do with whatever caused the lord’s displeasure, (think of the innocent women in Sodom, whose homosexual husbands had been the catalyst for the lord’s rage.  And the hapless children too, of course.)

Though the role of the bolshie angels is a departure from scripture, and so are Cain’s interventions in God’s plans to reboot the human race with a better version, there is nothing particularly original about Cain’s challenges to Old Testament faith.  Any competent atheist could do much the same, though some of them are a good deal more long-winded and abrasive about it.  (Yes, I am thinking of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens).  What makes this book fun to read is the tone of the narrator, wryly observing proceedings, and occasionally reminding the reader that the present day exists by inserting comic anachronisms, as when God was absent for the launch of the Ark.

God was not there for the launch.  He was busy examining the planet’s hydraulic system, checking the state of the valves, tightening the odd loose screw that was dripping where it shouldn’t, testing the various local distribution networks, keeping an eye on the manometers, as well as dealing with tens of myriads of other tasks, large and small, each of them more important than the last, and which only he, as creator, engineer and administrator of the universal mechanisms, was in a position to carry out and to which only he could give the sacred ok.  Parties were for other people, he had work to do.  At such times, he felt less like a god and more like the foreman of the worker angels, who, at that precise moment, were waiting in their immaculately white overalls, one hundred and fifty on the starboard side of the ark and one hundred and fifty on the port side, for the order to lift the enormous vessel… (p.148)

Cain’s argumentative personality earns him a rebuke from the angels, who warn him that the lord is listening and, sooner or later, he will punish you.

To which Cain replies:

The lord isn’t listening, he’s deaf, everywhere the poor, unfortunate and wretched cry out to him for help, they plead with him for some remedy that the world denies them, and the lord turns his back on them. (p.124)

I heard a woman on TV the other day, spruiking the success of her prayers for the recovery of her loved one.  Good luck to you, I thought, but hey, if my prayers had that kind of power, I wouldn’t be wasting them on the welfare of just one person…

Author: José Saramago
Title: Cain, a novel
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Cover design by Michaela Sullivan, detail from ‘Cain and Abel’ (1542-44) by Titian.
Publisher: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, first published 2009
ISBN: 9780547840178, pbk., 159 pages
Source: Personal library.