Cain: A Novel by José Saramago; translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 176 pp)

José Saramago was a Nobel Prize-winning author from Portugal. He passed away at the age of 87 on June 18, 2010. Although Saramago did not receive widespread recognition until he was 60 years old, he has been highly prolific in the years since. Blindness, one of Saramago’s most highly regarded books was made into a major motion picture in 2008. He is survived by his wife Pilar Del Rio and a daughter from a previous marriage.

Margaret Jull Costa translates Portuguese and Spanish fiction and poetry. For her work she has won the Portuguese Translation Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize.

The Old Testament Is Rated NC-17

Have you ever thoroughly read the Old Testament? Have you spent time in the gory details? When fully diving into the stories, they can unsettle. Without holistically considering Scripture, God can seem like a vindictive deity perfectly willing to commit genocide for superfluous reasons. If we never focused on God’s attributes of grace, how would we conceive of the Christian deity? To a certain extent, José Saramago’s Cain answers this question.

The Lord of Forgetfulness

Cain sacrilegiously details the narrative of the Old Testament. Saramago commences the story at the end of the creation narrative. The lord—note the lower case—completes creation but does not perceive it as good:

“When the lord, also known as god, realized 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, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle” (1).

Photo by Nick Thompson

Beginning the book with the passage above, Saramago sets the stage for the lord as a bumbling and far-from-perfect character. After the excommunication of adam and eve from the garden of eden, the lord recedes into the background as the young family births cain and abel.

The lord does not reappear until cain and abel have grown into their respective vocations. Seeking a deeper connection with their creator, the sons offer first fruits as a sacrifice.

“The smoke from the meat offered by abel rose straight up and vanished into infinite space, a sign that the lord accepted the sacrifice and was well pleased, but the smoke from cain’s vegetables, nurtured with just as much love, hardly rose up at all and dispersed when it was barely a few feet above the ground, which meant that the lord had rejected it out of hand” (23-24).

Clearly, cain internalizes this rejection and retaliates by murdering his brother. Recognizing this injustice, the lord accuses cain. But cain refuses to let the lord off the hook. To cain, the responsibility for abel’s murder falls solely at the feet of the lord. If the lord recognized the gracious offering cain provided, no harm would have occurred.

Cain the Wanderer

Nevertheless, the lord inflicts cain with a peripatetic lifestyle. But, showing an element of what Christians would call grace and what cain would call a curse considering its effect on his life, the lord marks his forehead, thereby promising protection.

At this point, the plot unfolds rather bizarrely. Cursed to wander the earth, cain unsuccessfully attempts to establish himself in the land of nod, only to time travel to the major events of the Old Testament. Coincidentally, these major events make the lord seem like a cruel tyrant.

“His eyelids were just beginning to droop when he was startled into wakefulness by the voice of a young boy calling, Father, this was followed by a much older voice asking, What is it, isaac, We have the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering, and the father replied, The lord will provide a lamb as the burnt offering” (68).

Photo by Kuzeytac

Through these visitations, one must note Saramago only chose the most difficult passages in Scripture while glossing over the stories where the lord exhibits grace. Cain comprehends with great horror the difficult nature of a jealous and vindictive lord.

“I have learned one thing, What’s that, That our god, the creator of heaven and earth, is completely mad, Do you dare to call the lord god mad, Only a madman unaware of what he was doing would admit to being directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and then behave as if nothing had happened” (116).

A History of Misunderstandings

As the previous quotation indicates, the novel, Cain, is not for those unable to cope with an extremely unorthodox retelling of the biblical narrative. While the character cain acts as a protagonist, the lord represents the antagonist. But, Cain merely is not an elocution of atheism. Saramago carefully submits the notion of miscommunication as the core theme in the story.

“The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn’t understand us, and we don’t understand him” (78).

Scripture contains complicated narratives about which too many modern Christians gloss over. With Cain, Saramago speaks directly toward the problematic notions of God’s character found in these ancient texts. Truthfully, God kills countless people in the Pentateuch and Saramago considers these actions from a literal and humanistic level.

If you enjoy literary fiction and are willing to encounter an unorthodox and perhaps offensive retelling of the biblical narrative, check out Cain.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

Have you read other unorthodox retellings of Bible stories? How do such stories make you feel? Does the story need to be orthodox for you to enjoy it? Is there value in retelling Bible stories in sacrilegious ways?
Share your thoughts below.

Posted by: Donovan Richards
Alternative Takes: Tiny Library

Affiliate Links:

Powell’s Indie Bound Amazon



Leave a Comment