Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Saramago’s last hurrah

Title:     Cain
Author: Jose Saramago (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
Publisher: Harvill Secker (2011)
Price: RM 69.90

To say Saramago didn’t believe in God, would be an understatement. He was a life-long Communist and an atheist, and Cain, his last book that was first published in 2009, a year before he died could be described as his last middle-finger salute to the old guy (whom he has made no secret  of disliking).

Cain carries on where Saramago left off in his 1991 masterpiece (depending on who you ask), The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. In 1992, the Portuguese government ordered the removal of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from the European Literary Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive, which is not un-understandable considering the book was about a megalomanic  cruel Jewish God who, dissatisfied with being the Lord of a small tribe, wanted world domination regardless of cost in human lives and sufferings. Saramago complained about censorship and self-imposed exile to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he lived until his death.

Cain is comic fantasy. It is not Saramago’s best work, but one can recognise the master's hand as he trusts, parries and teases. Not unlike a veteran footballer, he exhibits plenty of guile and trickery, but unfortunately he no longer has the legs. Still, he is funny and entertaining. Saramago starts with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden -- yes, that apple incident -- with the couples' hilarious arguments with God, but the rest of the book is told from the point of view of Cain (with deadpan naive-comic asides from the narrator) who travels through Biblical lands and time, has a roaring affair with Lilith (my knowledge fails me here because, as far as I know Lilith was Adam's first wife, who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam, not from his rib, and thus refused to be subservient to men), and gets involved in the tales of Abraham and Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife, Lot and his daughters, Noah and his sons and the Tower of Babel, getting increasingly disenchanted with his Lord’s behaviour.

 This is a small book; only 160 pages. Those familiar with Saramago’s style of page long sentences, with no quote marks, no paragraphs, the use of the lower-case almost throughout, and his irreverent humour, will be proud to add this handsome volume to their collection. For newcomers, who don't mind trying something stronger than air bandung or soda-pop, I’d advice you start with Blindness: you'll either love him or hate him, but you'll not come out unscathed.