20 November 2009

José Saramago

José Saramago is possibly my favourite living novelist. So imagine how thrilled I am to see that he has a new novel out, called Caim (Cain). It's not yet been translated into English, but I am sure his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, is on the job already. The novel, as far as I can understand from coverage in Portuguese and Spanish websites, is the story of the Old Testament, retold by Cain after he murders Abel and is banished to spend a life wandering. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't give a very positive picture of God, and even less surprisingly, this has not gone down too well in Saramago's land of birth (Portugal) or his land of residence (Spain).
The Spanish newspaper Vanguardia has an interview with the great man. Obviously it's in Spanish but even I can understand the sense of mischief and humour in some of his replies. Of his attitude to the Bible, he says:
This has to do with my position that if we don't understand the other side of things, we don't understand them at all. [...] Even a book considered holy, like the Bible, permits - and demands - that we try to read it from the other side. And this other side always puts right some ideas we had, while it confirms some others.
It's very easy to condemn Cain for fratricide, and I don't absolve him. Of course not. What I do do is to put some of the blame on God: He, everyone should know, could have avoided this. His responsibility is that, when the two brothers offered him the products of their work, Cain, the arable farmer offered vegetables, while Abel, the grazier, offered him meat. God was delighted by the meat roasting on the hearth ... and deprecated Cain's offerings. What kind of God is this, who can only value one person by putting another down in such a provocative way? Cain is humiliated by God, and kills his brother because he can't kill God, which is what he wants.
To the comment that there is a lot of violence in the book,
Yes, but I didn't need to add anything to the violence that is in the original biblical texts.
In the retelling of the Babel story, it seems that the two original languages are Basque and Portuguese:
this will make my Basque readers happy, as it is an extraordinary proof of the antiquity of their language.
Asked if the message of the novel is about the destructive nature of belief, he says:
I never like talking about a message in literature. The message is whatever each reader takes from it, very different in each case. I am an atheist and I feel it impossible, even with mental effort, to believe in God or to get close to this sensation. And, for me I have never had any doubt of the enormously negative and harmful consequences of the existence of religions, which always set people against each other. Killing, killing, killing - it's what they have done throughout history ...
I'm putting this post into my regular blog, not the literary one, because no-one reads that. (Hardly anyone reads this.) Saramago's books aren't easy, but they aren't as difficult as they first look. The sentences are long, but have a rhythm derived from dialogue that soon becomes easy to read. Sometimes, as in Blindness, the subject-matter is almost unbearably hard to take, and you have to learn to trust Saramago as a guide through terrors. So, don't start with that one. I'd recommend The Double as a start, or maybe a more recent novel, Death at Intervals as good starting points. Both have a story that's fascinating (in fact, Death at Intervals has two; being structurally a bit lumpy, it's virtually two novels joined at the middle), and are a fairly smooth way into his unusual but addictive style. Do try.

(Shocking, certainly, but the question is - should we interpret it literally?)

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