I once quipped to a friend that God’s greatest gift to the world is the lapsed Catholic. While I’m not certain that José Saramago could be thrown into that category, the spirit of his writing is the same: that of a relentless, bitter humor, full of questioning and snide heresy. Yet snide heresy, while enjoyable in small bouts, does not make a novel. In fact, some novels and writings are so caught up in their own skepticism and anti-theism that they lose the very thing that makes such novels interesting in the first place: the unpredictable human element. Some writings are so obsessed with rationality and trying to analytically and scientifically prove the existence of God wrong that they become, if nothing else, boring. There’s only so much rationalism one can read before beginning to wonder if we’re asking the wrong question; or approaching the answer through an incorrect lens.
What lends this question interest now is approaching it while allowing certain “givens” and then responding to a newer, more interesting question that is created. In Cain, Saramago, an outright and outspoken atheist, does not interest himself in the question of whether or not God exists, but whether or not humanity has thought things through enough to understand whether or not we actually want God to exist. In fact, the given here, is that God does. Yet it is not the God that is espoused by many Christian followers today (make no mistake, despite this being a book about the Jewish Tanakh, it is clearly aimed at Christianity and, above all else, the church). It is instead a very literal reading of Genesis and the beginnings of Exodus. While many writers approach these texts in hopes of finding a way to retell the stories within them, it is perhaps only writers such Saramago, Bolano, or Garcia Marquez, that can bring the stories to life.
What it takes is the ability to write in a such a way that the most fanciful, outrageous thing can happen, yet the author tells it in such a way as if it happens each Tuesday and no one thinks a thing of it. In the landscape of Magical Realism, the stories of religious texts become fodder for the greatest stories we have to offer as humans. Cain is no exception to this; a broad-ranging little novel that takes aim at the very book that started it all.
Cain is not simply a retelling of the infamous fratricide of Abel at the hand of Cain. No, Saramago chooses to get that part out of the way quickly so that he may focus on the other parts of Genesis, Exodus, and Job. Cain becomes the book’s time-traveling cynic, who each time he leaves a location, finds himself transported to another. While Cain’s meditations on each biblical situation are humorous and at times poignant, one cannot help but get a sense that the book is preaching to the choir; that though Saramago has changed the question to a more interesting one, it nonetheless reads as something anyone who has grappled with these questions before can not only predict, but also ask the question, “Yes, yes, but have you got something new for me?”
In some ways the novel becomes mired in bad repetition. That upon leaving our initial meeting between Cain and God in which Cain calls out the logic of the divine for punishing him so that he (God) can hold himself exempt from morality, Cain has a lot of good moments, but none that are necessarily interesting. Saramago likes to build up God as a bumbling egomaniac that can be outwitted by a child if necessary. Cain is clearly the most intelligent person in the novel, yet is perhaps only saved from becoming dreadful to consider the haughtiness of as the book comes to a close and he begins to become more than just an observer. And these two characters begin to lose the interest they initially created when, as the novel progresses, they don’t seem to really change all that much. Cain’s pre-conceived notions of God are confirmed by the happenings in Sodom and Gomorrah (a particularly poor reading of Sodom and Gomorrah, it should be pointed out), his observation of Abraham almost killing Isaac, Noah being too stupid and blind to see what was happening in front of him, the injustice at the Tower of Babel, and the absurdity of Job. Meanwhile, God, as Saramago creates him, never learns anything. He stays an arrogant, heartless, dull being that if it were not for his power, could be defeated easily.
For pure entertainment’s sake, Cain works on a variety of levels. Saramago is ruthless in what he will joke about. The novel is short, but structured in a way that provides a small challenge to any reader until they fall into the flow he has created. And, as much as I’ve critiqued the way it was done, when the criticisms Cain has are well-made, they are difficult to not enjoy. And, Cain’s solution to his major problem (which I will not be spoiling) is a twist that makes the novel memorable. Yet, I’m never going to be one to favor entertainment over substance. For something to be truly great I think it needs a heavy mixture of both, less it end up entertaining but with nothing to say (Gentlemen of the Road), or something that says so much it loses its story in the process (1984). Cain ends up feeling like a novel that is not preaching to choir as much as it is a rant that, while interesting, is something that doesn’t demand your attention any time soon.
Recommended to: Those who are questioning all the things they believed growing up, questioning the beliefs of those around them, or just wanting a humorous look at religion from the outside. Cain is a good novel, and I suspect it would be more interesting to those who hadn’t spend years of their lives studying the arguments the book exists to perpetuate.
Avoid as if it’s doing work on a Saturday and you would rather be watching reruns of Star Trek: TNG: Those who don’t take so kindly to their religious views being poked at. At this point I am so used to books such as these that I can barely differentiate between books that are deeply offensive to some and books that just humorously ask questions. In the end, I feel that reading Saramago while devout would be a good way to raise your blood pressure.