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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



José Saramago

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To purchase Cain

Title: Cain
Author: José Saramago
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 159 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Cain - US
Cain - UK
Cain - Canada
Cain - India
Caïn - France
Kain - Deutschland
Caín - España
  • Portuguese title: Caim
  • Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative spin on Old Testament tales

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 8/7/2011 ÁGurría-Quintana
FAZ . 16/8/2011 Florian Borchmeyer
The Guardian . 15/7/2011 Ian Sansom
The Independent . 19/8/2011 Daniel Hahn
London Rev. of Books . 6/10/2011 Robert Alter
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/10/2011 Robert Pinsky
The New Yorker . 14/11/2011 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 16/10/2011 Roberto Ignacio Díaz

  From the Reviews:
  • "Above all, Saramago takes great pleasure in pointing out the gratuitous cruelty of the Old Testament’s God, and the idiocy of the priapic patriarchs who committed atrocities in his name. (...) Hats must be doffed once again to Margaret Jull Costa, Saramago’s fearless long-time translator, for taming his punctuation-free prose, rendering it not only readable, but enjoyable" - ÁGurría-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "So macht er Kain zum Vater aller Zeitreisenden, wie sich auch überhaupt sein Bibel-Remake zusehends als ironisch-eklektisches Potpourri unterschiedlichster Literaturgenres entpuppt. (...) Dennoch besitzt Kain einen Charme, der Saramagos vorausgehenden Büchern abging: lakonische Eleganz. Stetig die Stilregister wechselnd, die Grenzbereiche von Ernst und Humor, von Nüchternheit und Agitation, von Reflexion und Erzählfreude auslotend, erreicht Saramago bei aller Polemik eine fragile Heiterkeit, die sich stets des drohenden Abgrunds bewusst ist." - Florian Borchmeyer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "For those unfamiliar with the Saramago style, therefore, Cain both tells the primal story and acts as a useful primer. The prose is seasoned throughout with clichés, which Saramago confuses with irony, and there are platitudes aplenty (.....) Cain is neither original nor particularly provocative." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "(T)here is more to his anachronistic unpicking of the Old Testament than a mere wish to shock. (...) Saramago is a first-person narrator who keeps himself just out the corner of your eye. He's often funny, and thought-provoking, and delightfully mischievous, savouring the details of his own defiance. Every little barb, every little twist is absolutely deliberate." - Daniel Hahn, The Independent

  • "The narrative veers drastically away from tradition and back toward it and then away again with radical aplomb. The effect is sometimes comic, but with a complex, outraged commitment far beyond parody. Comedy and boundless complexity: Saramago’s novels have been called parables, but they are not allegories." - Robert Pinsky, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Like a postmodern Creator of sorts, Saramago crafts a new world by recycling a series of well-known episodes and interpreting them from the viewpoint of a common reader. (...) To god's inscrutable words and deeds, Saramago juxtaposes an eminently readable narrative of work and poverty, class and desire, knowledge and timelessness" - Roberto Ignacio Díaz, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central character in Cain is the eponymous brother-murderer, but the novel covers much of the Old Testament, beginning with Adam and Eve and including Joshua, Job, Sodom and Gomorrah, and concluding with Noah's ark.
       Even before cain is on the scene, god -- neither the deity nor the character-names are capitalized -- has his issues with adam and eve -- and it's clear that this god isn't a particularly nice guy. Cain, for one, doesn't like how he handles himself, and even though he does go on to murder his brother places the blame squarely on the all-powerful one:

you are the one who is really to blame, I would have given my life for him if you had not destroyed mine
       The idea that it was a 'test' doesn't cut it with cain. The two debate it for a while and then god decides to give him a bit of a break: cain will be marked, doomed to be: "a fugitive and vagabond upon the earth" -- but also subject to the protection and censure of god, granting him inviolability.
       So off he goes -- though even that isn't entirely straightforward, as cain finds himself subject to:
sudden time-traveling shifts from present to present, now forward, now backward
       This allows cain to drop in on various episodes from the Old Testament, which Saramago spins slightly differently than the standard versions have it.
       The god-figure isn't that far from the Biblical one, what with his whims and temper, but Saramago certainly accentuates these: god is an unpleasant character who certainly doesn't behave very well or generously, given that he is all-powerful. Cain meanwhile finds himself in the middle of more things than he'd probably like, secure in the knowledge that he won't be killed but nevertheless getting into some unpleasant situations.
       At one point an old man says to cain:
I don't know the details, and the savor of any story is always in the details
       Most of the stories Saramago offers here are, in their outlines and protagonists, very familiar, but he certainly puts the savor in the details. Stylistically, Cain isn't entirely straightforward, beyond even the refusal to capitalize proper names. Dialogue goes back and forth between characters in single run-on sentences, without quotation marks, for example. Yet despite some very abrupt shifts in the telling -- as though he grew bored and wanted to move on quickly -- and while the episodes also don't unfold in (biblical) sequence, they are relatively easy to follow. Saramago is playful here, but at heart he remains a storyteller, and the stories do get their due.
       Saramago doesn't treat his material (or his god) with much respect or reverence, but he's still more interested in the human characters than in the all-mighty. In describing how they deal with the absurdity of his whims he suggests:
The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn't understand us, and we don't understand him.
       Cain offers variations on that theme, from poking fun at the very idea of an all-powerful being to more pointed criticism of the deity depicted in the Bible. In its whirlwind tour of much of the Old Testament, it's an interesting and often amusing work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 November 2011

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Cain: Reviews: José Saramago: Other books by José Saramago under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Portuguese author José Saramago (1922-2010) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998.

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© 2011-2012 the complete review

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