Book review: Cain

Cain BY Jose Saramago Harvill Secker, 150pp. £12.99

Cain is Jose Saramago's last work of fiction, published shortly before the Nobel Laureate's death a year ago. It is an elegant, witty novella, a riff on the Old Testament, a meditation on relations between God and Man, and the final chapter of Saramago's long argument with religion.

I suppose that only fundamentalist Jews and Christians regard the Old Testament, and especially the early pre-historical books, as anything but a collection of myths. Nevertheless these myths - the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, Noah's Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, God's selection of the Israelites as his chosen people, the plagues inflicted on Egypt, the Children of Israel's 40 years in the wilderness, the laws of Moses, the taking of Jericho and the entry to the Promised Land - retain their resonance and are central to our culture. Here in Scotland, for centuries after the Reformation, Jehovah, the God of the Old Testament, loomed larger than Christ in the teaching of the Kirk. But what sort of God was he?

"A jealous God", by his own account, demanding unquestioning obedience from the beings he created, and punishing those who fell short. A God capable of testing Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac, rescued from death at the last minute when an obliging angel drew Abraham's attention to a ram caught in a thicket as a more suitable sacrificial victim. A God who in his wrath ordered the slaughter of the innocent along with the guilty, and who commanded his loyal servants to engage in what we would now call genocide. Not a nice God, then.

Saramago has no time for this god. He takes Cain, condemned to be a wanderer on the face of the earth, his own face marked by the deity after his murder of his brother Abel, to be his spokesman. Cain, in this fantasy, moves back and forth in time and place, witnessing, and sometimes participating in, the most dramatic events in the early books of the Bible. The tone is light. The narrative moves easily. There is a great deal of happy invention of detail, though the outline of the story in each of Cain's encounters follows the Old Testament original closely.

The questions posed are pertinent. When the angel appears, rather late, to save Isaac, who has in this version already been saved by Cain's timely intervention, he tells Abraham that, because he had been willing to obey the command to sacrifice his son, "in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed because you have obeyed my voice, the word of the lord". "I don't see," Cain says, "why all the people of the earth will be blessed just because Abraham obeyed a stupid order." "That is what we in heaven call due obedience," said the angel" - which doesn't answer Cain's objection. Instead Saramago imagines Isaac asking "what kind of lord would order a father to kill his own son". "He's the only lord we have," is Abraham's rather feeble reply. "The history of mankind," Saramago concludes, "is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn't understand us, and we don't understand him."

Take, for instance, the case of Job, where Cain is also permitted an onlooker's part. Muriel Spark, approaching the question from a Christian angle, unlike Saramago, wrote a novel, The Only Problem, which she described as a meditation on the Book of Job: The problem is: how can a benevolent and all-powerful Creator-God permit the unspeakable sufferings of the world? It's more acute than that really, for according to the Book of Job, God not only permits suffering; he actually instigates it by giving Satan free rein to test Job's faith in the divine ordering of the world. There is no satisfactory answer. Saramago has Cain say: "It seems to me that if the lord doesn't trust the people who believe in him, I really don't see why those people should trust in the lord … I've had enough of all this nonsense about the Lord's ways being inscrutable… God should be as clear and transparent as a pane of glass, and not go wasting his energies on creating an atmosphere of constant terror and fear, God, in short, does not love us." To which the angelic reply is only, "He it was who gave you life", which neither Cain, nor his creator in this fiction, Saramago, finds satisfactory.

Every page of this novella, translated with a fluent and light touch by Margaret Jill Costa, has its charm. Every page raises difficult questions. That over the centuries we have found no satisfying answer to these questions - that there is no answer to the problem of Job - doesn't make them less compelling. Many will find this novella disagreeably provoking, but, as the final testament of the Portuguese master, it is suitably disturbing - and a pleasure to read.

Back to the top of the page