Being in and around BookHampton so much of the time I naturally look up forthcoming releases, especially watching for new books by favorite authors of mine. I was therefore amazed to discover on the shelves this week a new book by José Saramago called Cain, of which I had been totally unaware; indeed I was sure that The Elephant’s Journey (which I wrote about last year) was said to be the last book Saramago completed before his death in 2010. But there it was, and needless to say I read it instantly.
Cain centers on the biblical figure, the elder son of Adam and Eve, the one who killed his brother Abel. It begins with his parents in the Garden of Eden (and their eventual removal from it) and describes the murder, but then continues with Cain's ceaseless wandering backwards and forwards through the biblical world and, still more to the point, his ceaseless arguments with God.
Those who know anything of Saramago's career will know that about twenty years ago he published a novel entitled The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a retelling of the life of Jesus from a very human perspective. Although it is certainly one of the author's greatest works it was — to put it mildly — received very poorly by both the church and the state in Portugal; indeed the church authorities intervened to prevent him from receiving a major literary award for the book and, in response, he moved to a Spanish island and lived there for the rest of his life. When Saramago won the Nobel Prize a few years later the response in Portugal (none of whose authors had ever won the prize before) was very — how shall I put it? — muted. In his personal life Saramago was both an atheist and a communist, which certainly did not improve his standing with the powers that be, at least in his own country.
Very early in the story, when God confronts Cain just after he has murdered his brother, Cain blames God for "putting [him] to the test". He says: "Just as 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 that you share with all the other gods and, again just for a moment, to be truly merciful and accept my offering with humility, because you shouldn't have refused it, you gods, you and all the others, have a duty to those you claim to have created, This is seditious talk, Yes, possibly, but I can guarantee you that if I were god, I would repeat every day Blessed are those who choose sedition because theirs is the kingdom of the earth."
Often Cain addresses the suffering of children, such as those inevitably slaughtered in Sodom (having been overlooked in God's promise to save the city if only 10 virtuous people could be found) and, indeed, in the mouth of Isaac himself. God is depicted in these pages as vain, authoritarian, eccentric and, occasionally, rather bumbling (the story of the ill-conceived construction of Noah's Ark is hilariously funny).
Make no mistake, this book is a frontal attack on religious belief and will no doubt be very controversial. It is also a sizzlingly good read, a book by an author who knew exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it. At the end God and Cain are still arguing: "God's answer went unheard, and what cain said next was lost too, but it seems likely that they argued with each other on many other occasions, and one thing we know for certain is that they continued to argue and are arguing still."
For Saramago's fans this book is of course self-recommending but it ought to be read by a wider audience as well, particularly by people who are believers and enjoy the prospect of encountering a challenge to their beliefs and, yes, continuing the argument.
— Jeremy Nussbaum