In the beginning...
By José Saramago
Translated, from the Portuguese,
by Margaret Jull Costa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 159 pp., $24
It is common enough to liken novelists creating their characters to the Genesis story of God making man. Like God, novelists scratch together a pile of dust - in their case the cloudy detritus thrown up when tattered inspiration collides with writer’s block - and attempt to blow it into life.
The Portuguese novelist José Saramago, who died last year at 87, was particularly godlike with his characters. Not only did he create them, but he interposed himself continually, sending them on outlandish though oddly sensible errands, and admonishing or encouraging them with a skeptical impatience softened by wit.
In “Cain,’’ his last, posthumously published novel, God himself is a principal character. Saramago, a militant atheist, drives hard against Him. It is the Old Testament God (In “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ,’’ published 20 years ago, it was the God of the New Testament), and Saramago writes Him as a bloodily capricious tyrant. Even here, unable to avoid amused indulgence, he makes Him a bumbler as well.
Isaac Bashevis Singer once complained that when God made man he failed to use the best materials. In “Cain’’ it is the other way around: man, (Saramago) creating God, makes a point of using imperfect materials.
Before getting to Cain, Saramago writes of God’s problems with Adam and Eve. Having forgotten to give them voices, He has to come back to provide them. He returns a second time to give them belly buttons, which he’d also forgotten, and is particularly pleased with the gracefulness of Eve’s. “This was the last time the lord looked upon his work and saw that it was good,’’ Saramago continues, preparing his sardonic chronicle of vindictiveness as the thread running through the Old Testament.
Expelled to the desert, neither Adam nor Eve has the slightest idea how to survive. Adam, Saramago’s typical male (bureaucratically deferential to higher authority), opposes Eve’s proposal to go back and persuade the angel with the fiery sword to let them have a little fruit. Eve, Saramago’s typical woman (neither bureaucratic nor deferential), goes anyway, and cajoles food and useful angelic advice about making a living.
Skip to Cain. Jealous of Abel because his burnt offering of meat found God’s favor while his own offering of grain did not, he kills his brother. But when God wrathfully decrees he must henceforth wander, reviled, he argues back. Partly his fault, perhaps, but why didn’t God stop it? Unused to defiance, God concedes he has a point; to compensate, He bestows upon Cain a mark that will keep him safe through his enforced wanderings.
Up to here “Cain,’’ though something of a forced conceit, displays some of Saramago’s talent for writing paradox that is both outrageous and winning. Argument is his strength, a quietly witty and expansive device that his characters use with themselves and others; argument as a self-propelled vehicle that takes them adventuring. And this first part is essentially Saramagan argument: Adam’s, Eve’s and Cain’s with God and with each other.
But once Cain begins his wanderings - essentially time travels through a succession of celebrated Bible stories that take up the rest of the book - things decline sharply. To put it plainly, in this last book the aged author seems to have lost some of his transforming magic, and perhaps even his interest in his principal character; also a measure of control. The episodes succeed each other mechanically, with Cain’s role being to witness and denounce God’s actions as cruel, arbitrary, and often incompetent as well.
Cain watches Abraham preparing to slay his beloved son Isaac at God’s behest. At the last minute he grabs the father’s arm to stop it. Only then does the angel arrive with the divine counter-order, apologizing that a problem with a wing made him late.
What follows - the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, the trials of Job - are treated cursorily. Whereas the massacres by God’s chosen people, the Israelites, of their enemies, drags on and on in the mind-numbing detail we find in the sloggier reaches of the Old Testament.
By the time we get to the last episode featuring Noah and Cain’s lethal sabotage of God’s plan to create an improved post-flood humanity, “Cain,’’ unlike the Ark, has pretty much sunk. At the end, though, a couple of sentences almost rekindle Saramago’s flame. Our last glimpse: God and Cain fade out, still arguing. In Saramago’s fiction - astonishingly tender for a writer who in his nonliterary life held such intransigent views; a hardline Stalinist, no less - God by no means gets the best lines, but he does get lines.
Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at ederculloch @gmail.com.