José Saramago
Margaret Jull Costa,

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Cain is a farmer, but the lord doesn't seem to care much for what he produces so he dings brother Abel with the jawbone of the ass and takes off and then does the entire bible: Abraham and Isaac, the golden calf, Lot, Job, Sodom and Gomorra, the Walls of Jerico, Noah and the ark.

And in the process, we find another Cain, for Saramago has shaped him into the new everyman, looking at the world with a piercing clarity, wondering how it can be so mad and cruel.

For instance he asks some of the angels why the devil has been given carte blanche to abuse poor Job: "Can you explain to me why job should have been transformed into a leper, covered in suppurating wounds, having lost all his children and all his wealth?...

The lord will find some way of compensating him [say the angels],

Will he resuscitate his ten children, raise the walls of his house and bring back the animals that were killed,

That we don't know..."

Then the killer question, coming from someone who is learning to wonder about this lord they have saddled us with:

    And what will the lord do to satan, who would seem to have abused the authority given to him, Probably nothing, Nothing, asked cain, scandalized, slaves may not count in the statistics, but a lot of other people died too, and you're telling me that the lord will probably do nothing,

"It's not our fault, that's how it's always been in heaven ... The conversation ended there, the angels left, and cain began to think that he really should find a more dignified path in life."

§   §   §

Some of us had to grow up on this bible, some of us even had it dinned in our heads endlessly, regularly, twice on Sundays, ad nauseum. And still it never registered, the cold stone they had given us for the rock of our faith.

It is I suppose like what happens to us who grow up in a house of alcoholics: it becomes part of the background noise, you don't question it, once you get out the door you ... well, you don't forget it, but it is back there behind your life and you don't think it's so special or different until there comes a moment when you find another body on the floor amidst the broken glass and the shambles, a body supposedly related to you, and you think, "Other people don't live like this (the bottles under the cushions, tucked away at the back of the closet; that stink of booze everywhere; mum passed out again in the bathroom.)

§   §   §

From our past readings, we know this Saramago can take any story from anywhere and pop it full of life. Eight years ago, we wrote in our review of The Cave,

    Saramago got a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and as far as I am concerned he should have gotten at the same time the Nobel Prize for Psychology and another one, the Wise Prize, for Knowledge of the Workings of the Heart & Soul...

    ... plus, and in addition, any other prizes lying around, the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Prix Fixe de France and whatever other bookish prizes they have hanging around to give to those who through some sterling ability that you and I will never ever be able to comprehend can take a story and words and characters and twist them around and down inside you with such force that they belong to you ... no ... they become you.

Still, can you imagine anything more sure to deaden the hand of a lively writer than the Old Testament? To try to make sense --- much less a cogent story --- out of all this Spaghetti Near East of wars and murder and rapine and pillage and fire and brimstone and plagues and the endless slaying of men and women and children. How can we keep up with it and make sense of anything at all?

But by god Saramago does it, and with such verve and charm you want to call him up and congratulate him ... only he left this vale of tears a couple of years ago, and there are now just his merry books to remind us that he was ever here at all.

It's not just the narrative, the plot, the story. When it comes to telling a tale, Saramago can go off in the hills for a bit of meander ... a donkey, for instance, who, he points out, "is a great conversationalist, one need think only of its many ways of braying and snorting and the sheer variety of its ear movements, however not everyone who rides a donkey knows that language,"

    which is why seemingly inexplicable situations arise, like when the creature stops in the middle of the road, motionless, and refuses to budge even if beaten. People say then that the donkey is as stubborn as a mule, when, in fact it's simply a communication problem, as happens so often between human beings.

§   §   §

Cain, as for many of us who are not simply muddle-headed, wants to ask a question or two from time to time: the big ones will treat with the crazy-mad-inexplicable, like the curse slapped willy-nilly on Job. Or maybe Moses in the war with the Midianites, when the lord orders him to "go back and kill every male child and every woman who has lain with a man, and as for the female children and those women who have not yet lain with a man, you may keep them for yourselves."

Or Abraham, told to tie up his son and murder him, and, when stopped by the angel, the boy must ask "Father, whatever did I do to you that would make you want to kill me, your only son, You did nothing wrong, Isaac, So why did you want to cut my throat as if I were a lamb, asked the boy, if that man, may the lord's blessings be upon him, hadn't come and grabbed your arm, you would now be carrying home a corpse. What kind of lord would order a father to kill his own son? ... What would have happened if you had disobeyed the order, asked isaac. Well the lord usually sends down ruin or disease upon anyone who fails him..."

Then Abraham asks Isaac to forget it, and Isaac says, "I'm not sure I can, father, I can still see myself lying, bound, on top of the pyre, and your arm raised, the blade of the knife glinting. That wasn't me, I would never do such a thing when in my right mind, Do you mean that the lord makes people mad, asked isaac, Yes, he often does, almost always, replied abraham."

I'll not give away the last part of Cain, the lone ark floating on the endless seas, and Cain comes up with an idea --- the only idea possible --- to put an end to this paradox, to finally take the terrible sting out of the discovery "That our god, the creator of heaven and earth, is completely mad." For Cain has learned, by now, that when dealing with madmen, one must often commit mad acts ... to put an end to it all, forever and ever, amen.

And so he does.

--- A. W. Allworthy
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