Saturday, 17 December 2011

Cain by Jose Saramago

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


  1. Hmm I wonder if his book Blindness is written in that way also? I have it on my TBR shelf, and although I don't always mind that kind of writing, it does take some getting used to. I've never read anything by him before, but I'm quite looking forward to getting to him in the new year. I think I'll pass on Cain, though.

  2. I've a couple of his books, including this one, which I enjoyed, have not read Pullman's book but have read Michael moorecocks Behold The Man, which is another retelling & one I also enjoyed.

  3. The lack of quotation marks is a Portuguese thing. I struggled with Blindness because of this but it is normal for translators not to add them in. Though Blindness is a good story if you can cope with the punctuation, reminiscent of Day of the Triffids. I have Cain to review (I've had it for far too long though).

  4. Great review, Sam. I really love Saramago and I encourage you to continue reading his catalogue. In my mind, his magical realism shines brightest. Works like Blindness, The Stone Raft, and Death with Interruptions are some of the best novels I have ever read despite the long sentences and paragraphs.

  5. Trish, I think it is. Blindness is one by him that I really do want to read.

    Parrish Lantern, I have also read Behold The Man; I read it as a teenager and very much enjoyed it. You should give Pullman's book a go.

    Ellie, that makes sense if it is a Portugese thing (although I wonder why they don't use speech marks?). I had Cain for months from NetGalley before reviewing it...

    Donovan, I do want to try Blindness, I have heard only good things about it.

  6. Hmm. I've seen this book and thought a novel with Cain as the protagonist would be a great idea. But I'm not sure I would like this particular book. The sentence structure/punctuation/paragraph thing might be the kiss of death for me. I'm not sure I'd have the patience.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I just recently grabbed it from the shelves of my local library. I will read it next. I think.

  8. Susan, it is a great idea but reading it required a lot of concentration from me. As a teacher, I was itching to correct some of the grammar!

    Sabrina, I look forward to your thoughts on it and hope you enjoy it.

  9. I'm really excited to read this book. I love Saramago's works, and I just finished East of Eden by Steinbeck. I'm hoping this book will be a nice complement.

  10. This sounds like a really good plot, but I just have a hard time thinking someone could successfully execute such a task. Sounds like it wasn't, so I'm thinking I'll probably avoid adding this one to the TBR list. Thanks for the honest opinion.

  11. A beautiful, smart, witty, whimsical, thoughtful view of life as seen by a person who should know. Cain's life was much different then set out in the Bible. Thanks to Saramago, history has been finally set straight.
    I like this site :: Land For Sale in Alaska raw

  12. This is not one of those books that I would recommend to everyone because of its subject matter. However I'm sure that those who are familiar with the author's work, as well as with the writings of Norman Mailer, Robert Graves and Nikos Kazantzakis, will truly enjoy reading it. Saramago doesn't only seem to want to provoke the reader, but also to say to him that just believing something without questioning it, is the easy path; the one that leads to ignorance and cheats him of his free will and independent mind.

    Redmond iPhone Repair