Jose Saramago - Cain

Cain - José Saramago, Margaret Jull Costa

In 'Cain', published just a few months before Saramago’s death, the author gets to argue with God one last time. On this occasion his jibes are aimed at the god of the Old Testament, who, as we all know, is an easy target. This god is cruel, proud, jealous, vindictive, inconsistent and often simply petty. 
Saramago hires Cain to call out god on all his sins and errors beginning with Cain’s own sorry story which made him go down in history as the first murderer of the worst kind. But weren’t there any extenuations? After all, it’s god who started it. He was the one that created that unhealthy sibling rivalry between Abel and Cain by asking them for offerings and judging them. Abel, who took care of livestock brought a nice juicy lamb, and Cain who was a farmer brought god veggies. Sadly, god was not a vegetarian so he snubbed Cain’s offering each and every time. OK, so Cain overreacted. Murder is never the answer. But maybe god should take some of the responsibility, too?

This is the question that is being asked many times throughout this little book. Cain, condemned to endless wandering, appears whenever and wherever god’s actions are questionable. What sort of god asks someone to kill their beloved son to prove some stupid point? And isn’t killing against god’s very own commandments? Saramago reveals that it was actually Cain himself who stopped Abraham from killing Isaac as the angel sent on that mission was running late. Back when I was a good church going little girl I remember that story scared me the most. I was surprised it was never mentioned how Isaac felt about the fact that his dad just tried to kill him. Here is how it went according to Saramago:


“Isaac asked, Father, whatever did I do to you that would make you want to kill me, your only son, You did nothing wrong, Isaac, So why did you want to cut my throat as if I were a lamb, asked the boy, if that man, may the lord’s blessings be upon him, hadn’t come and grabbed your arm, you would now be carrying home a corpse, It was lord’s idea, he meant it as a test, A test of what, Of my faith and my obedience, What kind of lord would order a father to kill his own son, He’s the only lord we have, the lord of our ancestors, the lord who was here when we were born, And if that lord had a son, would he ordered him to be killed as well, asked Isaac, Time will tell.”

And what about the children of Sodom and Gomorrah? Surely they were innocent, weren’t they? And that whole Job business, that really was unnecessarily cruel. If any human were to test anybody’s love that way they would’ve been deemed psychopathic. Not to mention that replacing all the children of Job whom god killed with new children does not actually make it ok.

And so it goes, whenever god acts up comes Cain to ask the uncomfortable questions. Sometimes they are big things like just why exactly would god help certain tribes in their battles by killing thousands of people? Sounds rather bloodthirsty. Other times they are just minor inconsistencies – if Lot was so drunk that he passed out and had no idea his daughters were having sex with him, how did he manage to get it up?

Throughout the book Cain gets angrier and angrier with god, until he finally finds himself on the Ark with Noah and decides it’s time for revenge which is where the story ends.

 'Cain' is a funny little allegory but I couldn’t help but be saddened a little by how disappointed Saramago seemed to be with both god and the humankind. Nonetheless, it’s hard to disagree with him even if his jokes seem almost juvenile occasionally. I came to similar conclusions when I was nine and they explained to me that we must worship god all the time, otherwise he would get angry and send us to hell. I thought: what a drama queen!