Review | Cain, Jose Saramago (Margaret Jull Costa, trans)

Jose Saramago’s Cain just blew me away. The cover grabbed me at once: Titian’s (Tiziano Vecellio) Cain and Abel. The original painting showed Abel’s murder from below; Cain is caught in the act against the backdrop of a dark, roiling sky. We feel Abel’s fear; Cain appears a monster. In contrast, the book cover focuses on the two figures, with Abel barely in the frame. Rather than a portrait of a larger than life monster, this image is a dynamic depiction of rage. We feel Cain’s fury, we see the precariousness of his pose and can anticipate the downward strike of his stick. It’s a beautiful, powerful, savage image, and it’s given resonance by Cain’s confession in the book: “I killed abel because I couldn’t kill you [god].” This fury then is directed not at a younger brother, but at god, and we feel that throughout the book.

Cain relates the Old Testament from an all too relatable perspective. Condemned to wander the world forever, Cain witnesses Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Moses and the golden calf, Sodom and Gomorrah, the trials of Job and Noah’s Ark. At each incident, Cain is bewildered, frustrated and, progressively, furious at the callous, unjust, ever cruel actions of god. About Job, Cain tells an angel

…job, for all his wealth, is also a good and upright man […] he has committed no crime, and yet, for no reason, he is about to be punished […] I don’t think [god is just]. […] if the lord doesn’t trust the people who believe in him, I really don’t see why those people should trust in the lord. […] now [god’s] going to make job suffer because of a bet and no one will hold him to account.

Cain’s objections are reasonable and definitely relatable. The final observation, that no one holds god to account, is troubling, and definitely with a point. I grew up Catholic, and have always had drilled into me the idea that things happen according to God’s plan, which we must trust even though we do not understand. This belief can certainly provide comfort and in lots of ways, things in life do eventually work out. However, when a loved one is suffering from illness or some other personal crisis and begs you to tell him or her why such a horrible thing is happening, the idea that it’s all according to a divine plan rings hollow. Sometimes, life just really sucks; fate seems unfair and like Cain, I can see no logic in it. In Cain, god probably does have a plan, or so the angels claim, but it’s capricious at best and at worst possibly even diabolical.

Cain, however, does hold god to account, and acts as humanity’s advocate in his debate with god. Take for example the story of Abraham’s bargain with god to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham can find a certain number of innocents. I learned this story as a lesson in God’s mercy and love for humans, such that he’s willing to change his plans for our benefit. But, the story goes, it turns out there were no innocents so Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed anyway. Here, Cain asks, even if we assume that the residents were sinful, surely the children in those cities were innocent. Why then were they killed as well? In this and other incidents, the people Cain encounters explain that god’s plans are inscrutable, and the platitude grows as thin for us as it does for Cain.

What I love most about Cain is that Saramago keeps it from being pure commentary or manifesto by keeping Cain very much flawed. God may be cruel and Cain’s arguments may make sense, but Cain is, in many ways, also capricious. Cain’s killing of Abel is deeply symbolic and significant, but Cain’s refusal to accept full responsibility is immature. His motive, that god ignored his offering while favouring Abel’s, seems childish in that “mom always liked you better” kind of way. Cain ends up destroying innocent lives just as he accuses god of doing, though unlike god, his motives are clear: revenge on god. I love the moral ambiguity this creates. In his battle against god, how much does Cain actually end up becoming like him? If Cain is humanity’s advocate in this tale, how much are we like him, in our capacity to be just as cruel and capricious as we accuse god to be? Conversely, how much of god’s “mysterious ways” are actually just as screwed up as Cain’s?

Saramago ends his tale with “one thing we know for certain is that they […] are arguing still.” Saramago offers no easy answers or neat resolutions. Rather, he raises many, troubling questions. He also creates in Cain what I hope will be the most memorable portrayal of one of Christianity’s most reviled figures. Saramago’s Cain is less like Dan Brown’s symbolic, practically sanctified version of Mary Magdalene and more like the complex, sympathetic, yet still culpable figure of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar.

The dialogue in Cain is written in long, run on paragraphs without quotation marks. I usually dislike this style, finding it confusing and unnecessary. However, I love it here, where it creates a rich fluidity. Cain’s lines hurtle almost right on top of those spoken by angels or god, making my eyes race down the page, building momentum until Saramago issues a full stop. It’s an exhilarating, emotional experience, and its intensifying rhythm captures the rush of Cain’s anguish, and his fury, perfectly.

Cain is a potent, powerful book, deceptively unassuming in its 159 pages. The cover alone gives it a prime spot in my bookshelf. The intimacy implied in the cover art is reflected in Saramago’s words and Costa’s translation; it draws you in, keeps you close, and refuses to let go.


Turns out Publishers Weekly loves Cain as much as I do! It’s on their list of 100 Best Books of 2011. Read Gabe Habash’s beautifully written review here. I love the way Habash begins his review:

Oh, José, ye, the teller of paragraphs spanning eight pages. Tell me a story, an old, old story, about the man named Cain, who murdered his brother and was condemned by God to wander out his days.

Full list from Publishers Weekly coming out November 7th.

2 thoughts on “Review | Cain, Jose Saramago (Margaret Jull Costa, trans)

  1. I loved this book, however the grammatical error at the top of page 108 “to stop him going” should be , to stop “his” going, use possessive before the gerund. It is a very common error, but we should not find it in literature.

  2. Saramago is shit, mate. Sorry. The comma after comma trick can only fool those who are already so, otherwise its just ugly; his books reek of pseudo intellectualism.

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