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The Grand Comedian Visits the Bible

Cain

by José Saramago, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 159 pp., $24.00

José Saramago (1922–2010), a superb comic novelist, at his best was the peer of Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez. Cain, his last fiction, is a minor work, mostly valuable for its links to such permanent achievements as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1986), The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), The Stone Raft (1986), and most closely to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991).

Mark Twain would have admired Saramago; both novelists were anti-Christian savage humanists who depicted the fundamental ferocity of human nature and society. Saramago’s works scarcely are of the eminence of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but little else is, including the rest of Twain.

Saramago’s adolescence coincided with the early years of the fascist dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, where the Roman Catholic Church fused with a totalitarian nightmare, just as it did soon afterward in what became Franco’s Spain. My wife and I first visited Madrid and Barcelona in 1959, and were appalled by the desolate atmosphere brought about by the still ongoing fascist regime. Many years later we first visited Portugal, where Saramago graciously presented me for an honorary degree at the University of Coimbra. A warm acquaintanceship ensued, marked by an exegetical disagreement concerning The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which continued in correspondence and at a later meeting in New York City. Saramago’s will to power over the interpretation of his own texts was Nietzschean, and admirable in its comedic tenacity.

Cain is a deliberately farcical coda to The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, whose God is very unpleasant indeed, being at once time and truth. He expresses his identity pungently in a conversation with his son Jesus:

For the last four thousand and four years I have been the God of the Jews, a quarrelsome and difficult race by nature, but on the whole I have got along fairly well with them, they now take Me seriously and are likely to go on doing so for the foreseeable future.
So, You are satisfied, said Jesus. I am and I am not, or rather, I would be were it not for this restless heart of Mine, which is forever telling Me, Well now, a fine destiny you’ve arranged after four thousand years of trial and tribulation that no amount of sacrifice on altars will ever be able to repay, for You continue to be the god of a tiny population that occupies a minute part of this world You created with everything that’s on it, so tell Me, My son, if I should be satisfied with this depressing situation.
Never having created a world, I’m in no position to judge, replied Jesus. True, you cannot judge, but you could help. Help in what way. To spread My word, to help Me become the god of more people. I don’t understand. If you play your part, that is to say, the part I have reserved for you in My plan, I have every confidence that within the next six centuries or so, despite all the struggles and obstacles ahead of us, I will pass from being God of the Jews to being God of those whom we will call Catholics, from the Greek.
And what is this part You have reserved for me in Your plan. That of martyr, My son, that of victim, which is the best role of all for propagating any faith and stirring up fervor. God made the words martyr and victim seem like milk and honey on His tongue, but Jesus felt a sudden chill in his limbs, as if the mist had closed over him, while the devil regarded him with an enigmatic expression which combined scientific curiosity with grudging compassion.

A grand comedian, Saramago’s God boisterously chants a catalog of his favorite martyrs: “a litany, in alphabetical order so as not to hurt any feelings about precedence and importance.” This delicious cavalcade, four pages long, goes from Adalbert of Prague, impaled on a seven-pronged pikestaff, through Blandina of Lyons, gored by a salacious bull, on to the incredibly tough Januarius of Naples, who survives both angry beasts and a fiery furnace only at last to be decapitated. I recall observing to Saramago that his Jesus does not atone for us, and serves only as a means by which God converts himself from Jewishness to Catholicism. The novelist agreed only in part. An unreconstructed Stalinist, he did not accept my suggestion that his gospel’s God had authentic affinities with the Georgian tyrant.

Enjoyable as this fictive God is, the aesthetic achievement of Saramago’s Gospel centers upon its very appealing Jesus. He is a remarkably restrained ironist, considering his incessant victimization by God the Father, and is awakened to the blessing of more life by the prostitute Mary Magdalene:

Jesus breathed so fast, for one moment he thought he would faint when her hands, the left hand on his forehead, that right hand on his ankles, began caressing him, slowly coming together, meeting in the middle, then starting all over again. You’ve learned nothing, begone with you, Pastor had told him, and who knows, perhaps he meant to say that Jesus had not learned to cherish life. Now Mary Magdalene instructed him….

The Magdalene provides Saramago with a path away from a God who calls himself the truth yet is only a temporal nightmare. In Cain, composed decades later, Saramago fails to allow himself a touch more humor in representing the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This farewell performance attempts an antic romp through the Bible from the Creation through Noah’s Flood, though alas the reader will tire long before the three main characters—God, Cain, and the sexually insatiable Lilith—show any marks of subsiding. Saramago’s zest at delineating personality flags, which renders his polemical zeal unpersuasive.

An admirer of Saramago across the decades, I have no desire to deplore his final fiction. Instead I prefer to employ it to help in the appreciation of his permanent aesthetic achievements. What goes wrong in Cain is due to its incessant tendentiousness: it has too palpable a design upon us. I regard Saint Augustine and Sigmund Freud as the most tendentious of authors, yet their drive to overmaster us is near the center of their strength. Montaigne, wonderfully free of any ideological position toward his reader, surpasses even Augustine and Freud at creating a supreme fiction of the self.

Invoking such powers of mind would be unfair to Saramago, except that his need to battle the alliance between fascism and the Church that prevailed in Portugal and in Spain always threatened to divert him from his authentic genius as a comedic storyteller. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is frighteningly funny, yet nothing in Cain makes me smile, and laughter could not be more distant. Saramago makes it too clear that he regards himself as composing a Bible of Nonsense, his term for all of the Bible.

I cannot recommend that anyone read Cain, but am haunted by W.H. Auden’s dictum that reviewing bad books is not good for the reviewer’s character. Still, retelling the Bible is a challenge for a novelist at which Saramago fails, and perhaps only Thomas Mann triumphed. Some flavor of Cain can be imparted by its ending:

The following day, the boat reaches land. And the voice of god was heard, saying, Noah, noah, come forth from the ark with your wife and your sons and the wives of your sons, bring forth with you every living thing that is with you, both fowl and cattle and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, that they may breed abundantly on the earth and be fruitful and multiply.
There was a silence, then the door of the ark slowly opened and the animals began to emerge. Out they came, an endless stream, some large, like the elephant and the hippopotamus, some small, like the lizard and the cricket, others medium-sized, like the goat and the sheep. When the tortoises, who were the last to emerge, were moving off, slowly and ponderously as is their way, god called, Noah, noah, why do you not come out.
Emerging from the dark interior of the ark, cain appeared on the threshold of the great door, Where are noah and his family, asked the lord, They’re all dead, answered cain, Dead, what do you mean, dead, how, Well, apart from noah, who drowned himself of his own free will, I killed them all, You murderer, how dare you ruin my plan, is this how you show your gratitude for my having spared your life when you killed abel, asked the lord, There had to come a day when someone would show you your true face, What about the new human race I had promised, There was one, but there won’t be another and no one will miss it, You are indeed cain, the vile, wicked killer of your own brother, Not as vile and wicked as you, remember the children in sodom.
There was a great silence. Then cain said, Now you can kill me, No, I can’t, the word of god cannot be taken back, you will die a natural death on the empty earth, and carrion birds will devour your flesh, Yes, once you have devoured my spirit. God’s answer went unheard, and what cain said next was lost too, but it seems likely that they argued with each other on many other occasions, and one thing we know for certain is that they continued to argue and are arguing still. The story, though, is over, there will be nothing more to tell.

Whose story is it anyway and why did Saramago try to write it, since for him there truly was nothing more to tell? Contrast this with the closing passage of his novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis:

As they left the apartment, Fernando Pessoa told him, you forgot your hat. You know better than I do that hats aren’t worn where we’re going. On the sidewalk opposite the park, they watched the pale lights flicker on the river, the ominous shadows of the mountains. Let’s go then, said Fernando Pessoa. Let’s go, agreed Ricardo Reis. Adamastor did not turn around to look, perhaps afraid that if he did, he might let out finally his mighty howl. Here, where the sea ends and the earth awaits.

Dr. Ricardo Reis, a Horatian poet, gentle and reflective, is one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms. Just returned to Lisbon from Brazil, Reis reads an obituary of Pessoa in a newspaper and visits the grave, as an act of homage to his creator. Later, he encounters the ghost of the great modernist poet, waiting for him in his hotel room. Their conversation is charming, and can continue for the eight months of a ghost’s earthly existence, but Reis cannot survive his creator. The allied poets wander off together, as Saramago achieves a wonderfully new aesthetic effect.

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