Cain is the last book written by Nobel Prize for Literature winning author Jose Saramago, published after his recent death. It is essentially a retelling of the Old Testament through the eyes of Cain, who was marked forever for murdering his brother Abel. Cursed by God to wander, the Cain of Saramago's book witnesses Abraham almost killing Isaac, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the trials of Job and the building of Noah's Ark.
Throughout all of this Cain is a stand-in for scepticism and the desire of humanity to argue with God. How many people, even Christians, have wanted to be able to argue with God, just for one minute? Cain gets to do so on a regular basis and he exposes some flaws in God, who is painted by Saramago as the Old-Testament God of vengeance rather than the New-Testament God of love. At times in this book God miscalculates (he instructs Noah to build the Ark in the wrong place), doesn't take time to punish only the guilty (Sodom and Gomorrah) and displays poor time-keeping (Cain has to rescue Isaac as God's angel is going to be too late). Saramago does seem to want to shock, and I think this book would be offensive if you are a fundamentalist sort of Christian, but more than that he wants to poke fun in a gently mocking sort of way.
The story is told in a folksy style that has more in common with oral language than spoken language. I thought this worked well with the subject matter. Cain is the first Saramago I have read so I was immediately struck by the run on sentences, the eight page paragraphs, the lack of capitals and the complete absence of speech marks. Apparently this is common of his work and whilst I am all in favour of being experimental with narrative, the lack of paragraph breaks irritated me and I wanted proper grammar. I had to use much more attention than usual to keep track of who was speaking at what moment.
Whilst I did like this book, it didn't blow me away. I felt like Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ was a better and more thought-provoking re-examination of biblical stories. Cain passed the time nicely but it didn't really make me think in the way that perhaps the author intended.
Verdict: Retelling of Old Testament stories from a sceptical Cain, in a sometimes hard to follow style.
Source: From the publisher via NetGalley
Score: 3 out of 5