Saturday, July 16, 2011

We're all of us muleteers travelling down the same road

This book is about Cain: "cain is the man who killed his brother, cain is the man born to witness the unspeakable, cain is the man who hates god."

And it's about God, too:
Yes, I've been using my will rather too much, as have others in my name, that's why there is so much discontent, people turning their backs on me, some even denying my existence, Punish them, They're beyond my jurisdiction, out of my control, the life of a god isn't as easy as you all think, a god cannot, as people imagine, simply say I want, I can and I command, and he can't always get what he wants straight away, but has to go round in circles first, it's true that I placed that mark on the forehead of cain, whom you've never seen and don't even know, but what I can't understand is why I don't have the power to stop him going where his will takes him and doing whatever he wishes.

And about how they just don't understand each other. They squabble:
That mark on your forehead has grown bigger, it looks like a black sun rising up above the horizon of your eyes, Bravo, cried cain, applauding, I had no idea you went in for poetry, There, you see, you know absolutely nothing about me.

Cain is José Saramago's last novel, reimagining the life of the biblical character, first son of Adam and Eve, brother and murderer of Abel, condemned to wander the Earth.

It's a short novel, but I've been taking my sweet time with it. It is quite poetic, and it's a pleasure to read some things slowly, this is one of them. But it's also very thoughtful, asks some hard questions, like who is this god person anyway, and it demands thinking about them.

It is full of gentle humour, and compassion for all its characters, except maybe god, no, for him too. It is irreverent, but humane.

The thing is, I feel grossly inadequate to be discussing this book, cuz really, I know next to nothing about the bible, just, you know, some stories, and I'm pretty sure I don't have them right.

Cain ventures into some territory I'm rather unfamiliar with. He wanders the Earth, or biblical lands anyway, but he also travels through time (or alternate presents) to be present at the destruction of Sodom, the land of Uz (Job), Mount Sinai, the fall of Jericho, the tower of Babel, the land of Nod, the sacrifice of Isaac, the launching of Noah's ark. (The bible places Cain in the land of Nod, but so far as I know, he doesn't appear at these other sites or events, even though I recall that many characters lived for hundreds of years.)

Here's a review in The Scotsman, and one on the blog My Bread and Jam.

Cain opens in the garden of Eden, an idyllic time, before all the trouble starts, and god gives Adam and Eve the gift of language, or you might say thought, maybe even free will, now we're in trouble. And they're naked. Of Eve's smile:

The angel liked that smile. In heaven, people smiled a lot too, but always seraphically and with the slightly embarrassed look of someone apologising for being so contented, if you could call it contentment.

So, anyway, Cain, not his brother's keeper, he murdered him, and is exiled, land of Nod, Cain meets Lilith. Lilith! I love Lilith! Ever since I read The War Hound and the World's Pain when I was 13. Saramago is drawing on pseudepigrapha here (I learned a new word!). Apparently there's quite a mythology surrounding Lilith and Cain and their relationship ("she would remain bound to him by the body's sublime memory"), but you won't find this in your standard religious texts.

There are a few throwaway lines that make you go, wait a minute ("he had to do the rounds of the other paradises that exist in the heavens [p 16]," or "because we human beings were quadrupeds once [p 57]"), how can that be, and you wonder if there was anything like this in the bible, and then you think, well, maybe it's not inconsistent with all the stuff that's already packed in there, it's only natural some stuff would've been missed, and it makes sense so why discount it.

Is it blasphemous? Most probably, and I'm guessing it would offend a lot of people, religious types, as it offended the Vatican, and as is the way of the world, sadly, it may be these people who would benefit the most from this kind of sincere investigation, the train of Cain's thought that we follow, into what makes god tick, whether god can do evil, and why he would, or whether there is some tacit complicity between good and evil.

Mostly it drives home what a fucked up world we live in, and that it has always been this way, where so many innocents die, and where is the justice in this, where is god in this, where is he when you need him, what is he thinking.

As for lot's wife, she disobeyed the order not to look back and was transformed into a pillar of salt. No one has ever been able to understand why she was punished in that way, for it is only natural to want to know what is going on behind you. It's possible that the lord wanted to punish curiosity as if it were a mortal sin, but that doesn't say much for his intelligence either, just look at what happened with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, if eve hadn't given adam some of the fruit to eat, if she hadn't eaten it herself, they would still be in the garden of eden, and we know how boring that was.

So it's funny, at least I think that bit's funny, in a gentle way, the humour may be mildly barbed but it's not aggressive. It's hard to imagine Saramago actually hated god, if we can assume the character of Cain might've embodied some of Saramago's thoughts on the issue of god or religion, but he did get angry, and not even at god really but at the impossibility of understanding him, that it has always been this way and will go on forever.

While the false abel is walking towards the square where, according to the old man, his destiny awaits him, let us attend to the extremely pertinent observation made by a few of our more vigilant and attentive readers, who consider that the dialogue we have just set down would be historically and culturally impossible, that a farmer with little and now no land and an old man with no apparent means of support would never think of speak like that. They are quite right, of course, however, it's not so much a question of them having or not having the ideas and the necessary vocabulary to express those ideas, but of our own capacity to accept, even if only out of simple human empathy and intellectual generosity, that a peasant from the very earliest times and an old man leading two sheep along by a piece of rope, with only a limited knowledge and a language that it still only taking its first tentative steps, were driven by the need to try out ways of expressing premonitions and intuitions apparently beyond their reach. Obviously, they didn't say those actual words, but the doubts, suspicions, perplexities, argumentative advances and retreats were nevertheless there. All we did was put into a modern idiom the twofold and, for us, insoluble mystery of the language and thought of the time. If the result is coherent now, it would have been then, given that we're all of us muleteers travelling down the same road. All of us, both the learned and the ignorant.

A new era in the aesthetics of the human body
If milk is spilled, it's spilled


Stefanie said...

Oh, this sounds marvelous! I love Saramago. Haven't gotten a copy of this one yet. Really must. So sad that it is his last novel.

Cipriano said...

Wow, Isabella -- how did you get your tentacles on this thing? My own research indicates that I can't get this novel here in Canada until Sept.21 of 2011.
Your review makes me very much want to read this last offering from one of my favourite authors ever.
Thank you.

Isabella K said...

Stefanie, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. It's not the strongest of his novels, but still lovely. I'm lucky I haven't read a couple of his books older books, so I still have something to look forward to.

Cip, it's available in the UK as of earlier this month, so you could probably special order it. Mine was a digital review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley. You being schooled in religious matters, I greatly look forward to hearing your views on it.