José Saramago opens the story of Cain with the lines...
“When the lord, also known as god, realised that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were, like the two humans, the product of his divine command, already had a voice of their own...”
The long sentence, the use of commas instead of full stops, the avoidance of capitals, and above all, the underlying humour, is what I have learnt to expect from José Saramago. That he does so on a topic as delicate and controversial as the Bible, only makes the book an even more delightful read! Cain was the acclaimed Nobel Laureate’s last novel, and in many ways, it is a fitting conclusion to his works.
In the Bible, the story of Cain mainly concerns his differences with his brother Abel, and Cain moves out of the story after he murders Abel and is marked by the Lord. We are told that Cain becomes a wanderer and his descendents are all washed away in the great flood. Here, in this book, Saramago takes the story of Cain forward, showing him wandering the earth, travelling back and forth through time, witnessing the events we have read about in the Bible. He finds himself at various places at various times, usually when something is just about to happen.
He meets Abraham just as he is about to sacrifice his son, Issac. He stops Abraham from doing the deed, since the angels sent by God seem to have been delayed. “Better late than never” says the angel, and Cain replies “That’s where you’re wrong, never is not the opposite of late, the opposite of late is too late”
Sometime later, Cain meets Abraham again, but this time, in the past, before Issac is born. He is witness to the events that lead to Issac’s birth, and he goes on to see the destruction of Sodom. His travel takes him to lands he never knew existed, and he goes back to places he has been to before.
All along the way, he is the voice of reason, of rationalism, arguing with God and his angels about the need for testing his subjects, of the need to destroy them, of the scale of punishment, of the justice of God.
It is interesting to see how Saramago allows Cain the freedom of speech, the freedom of argument, with God himself, over and over again. Cain has been marked by God. It is the mark of condemnation, but it is also the mark of protection. This protection seems to assure him, not just of premature death as we are told in the Bible, but also of freedom of thought and argument with God himself, something which is never seen in the Bible.
The questions which crop up in the book, the questions asked by Cain, as well as the other characters are those we, as rational human beings, have asked ourselves at some time or the other. Haven’t we ever wondered why the Lord tries to test us? Why, when we believe that he loves us all, does he make us suffer? Yet, the appeal of this book is in the way Saramago raises these same questions, these same doubts, in the words and thoughts of Cain.
From what I have read of Saramago since reading this book, I have learnt that this wasn’t his first attempt at retelling the stories of the Bible. His “The Gospel according to Jesus Christ” was published more than two decades ago, and was so controversial, that he was forced to leave Portugal and settle in the Canary Islands. Cain was his last book, published in 2010, but it is apparent that neither the intervening years nor exile, succeeded in changing his views or chaining his pen. The book ends on a note which makes me wonder if he knew that this would be his last book. As for me, it has fuelled a desire to read more of his works!
P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India.