Review

Cain

by Jose Saramago

When Nobel laureate Jose Saramago passed away in 2010, the world lost one of the greatest minds and writers of the past century. CAIN marks the final work in a career that includes such masterpieces as BLINDNESS, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST and SEEING.

"Here’s hoping that future generations of readers will be able to enjoy works like CAIN and the important fictional legacy that Saramago has left for us to ponder."

The story of Cain is well known. Son of Adam and Eve, and brother to Abel, Cain was a young man full of desires yet constantly tormented by his need for acceptance and love.  When he feels that he has been slighted by God as he watches Abel receive the favor and platitudes he thought should be his, Cain plots an act of revenge that will change the face of biblical history.

In an act of sudden violence, Cain strikes down his brother with the jawbone of an ass, ending his life in the process. God is angered by Cain’s defiant display and banishes him from his family and home, condemning him to live out his days wandering the earth in eternal torment. It is at this point that Saramago picks up where the Bible left off and imagines what journeys Cain may have encountered during his banishment.

Being launched through time and space, often without reason or warning, Cain continually finds himself placed in pivotal situations that mark key moments in biblical history. The Old Testament, in a sense, is forever re-written as Cain finds himself at the center of several situations where he can take advantage and ruin God’s plans. This “instructive and definitive history of Cain” is sure to shock many and presents plenty of room for discussion and interpretation for all those who read this novel.

No matter where Cain goes, the story of how he struck down his only brother seems to have travelled there before him, and he is often treated with disdain and disgust by all who encounter him. He begins by bedding Noah’s wife, Lilith, in an effort to subvert the plans Cain knows that God has in mind for Noah in the near future. Cain asks Lilith if she sees a criminal before her when she looks at him; she responds by stating that she merely sees a man against whom the Lord offended. Sensing victory and a kinship with Lilith, he continues to share her bed and drive a stake between her marriage to Noah.

Later on, Cain is thrust into the middle of Abraham’s battle with God and watches firsthand as Abraham struggles with the request by God that he take the life of his only son, Isaac.  Cain finds himself constantly followed by several angels --- though whether they are guiding him or seeking to stop him in his vengeful quest is not made known to him. He lives by the understanding that it is not for God to understand man, for man does not understand God. This causes much anxiety within him, and the inner struggle he lives with is almost unbearable at times.

At the infamous Battle of Jericho, Cain vehemently denies to Joshua that he is an Israelite, allowing him to pass unnoticed within the walls of the city Joshua plans to destroy. Cain is more than happy to witness this act of destruction. He later gets his opportunity to foil the biggest plan God has yet for man --- the worldwide flood that only Noah and his ark of creatures will survive. God has given Noah a near impossible task of gathering pairs of every living creature on earth to board this mammoth ark. This proves to be especially difficult when the now mythical creatures such as griffins, centaurs, minotaurs and, of course, unicorns (a blatant homage to the great song by Shel Silverstein made famous by The Irish Rovers) are not able to be found for this mission. 

In a final act of defiance, Cain injects his villainous intent upon the ark and the succeeding repopulation of the species in a way that will stun those who read this novel. Saramago’s Cain is a torn soul, often finding an inner dichotomy where at times he seems to take on the mindset of his late brother, Abel. Author Ursula K. Le Guin was quoted as saying of Saramago that he got ahead of us; he is indeed ahead of us. Here’s hoping that future generations of readers will be able to enjoy works like CAIN and the important fictional legacy that Saramago has left for us to ponder.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on October 6, 2011

Cain
by Jose Saramago

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0547419899
  • ISBN-13: 9780547419893