Book Review: Cain

My copy of the book.

What if you wrote a story about Cain wandering the Earth after murdering Abel in the style of Forest Gump, whereupon Cain finds himself in the thick of every big set piece of the Old Testament, and it was done in the style of Cormac McCarthy (long sentences, no clear delineation for dialogue, including paragraph breaks) and Jack Kerouac (it quite literally feels like it could have been his 1957 novel, On the Road)? Then, you would have Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author José Saramago’s 2009 novel (and his final one), Cain. With that long windup, I’m hinting that this book isn’t for everyone, but I found it to be laugh-out-loud funny. Yes, seriously. Essentially, Saramago’s novel is an exquisite fan fiction about Cain, where he argues with angels and God Himself about the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses, Joshua and the Israelites (hilarity where God tells Joshua the sun doesn’t actually move, and Joshua is incredulous, so God tells him to say the Lord stopped the sun, even though He did not; I guess Joshua is a flat Earther), the suffering of Job (a “gambler’s wager” between God and Satan that served no real purpose), and Noah’s Ark (God, your calculations are off). Oh, and in between, Cain has a lot of explicit sex with Lilith, based off of the myth of Lilith. Somewhat peripheral to Cain, we also get some fun hilarity with the absurdity of God tossing Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for eating from the fruit (and the apple getting stuck in Adam’s apple, ha ha).

Perhaps my favorite of these fictional vignettes, though, and the one I found most amusing was Cain being the one who stops Abraham from sacrificing his son to Isaac. Shortly thereafter, God’s angel appears with the intention of stopping Abraham … but he’s late (he said his wing wasn’t working — mechanical issues and such; do celestial beings have access to the wing equivalent of HHH fly-side assistance?), and Cain lets him know. You were late, and if it wasn’t for me, Isaac would be dead. But the angel, by necessity as ordered by God, continues with his spiel about how Abraham will be favored now for his loyalty to God and his willingness to sacrifice his son. Isaac is bewildered by why his dad would do such a thing.

In his dealings with Lilith, Cain initially goes by Abel, his slain brother’s name, to avoid detection for his deed and claims his infamous “mark” by the Lord is actually a birthmark. I think Saramago was making a point with that, which is made even more explicit later, when another Biblical character acknowledges that Cain has passed as both Cain and Abel. Point being, perhaps all humans have within us the capacity to be Cain or Abel. But also, there’s a higher point Saramago is making stemming from Cain’s nefarious act of killing Abel. He killed Abel because both brothers were making sacrifices to God, and God inexplicably (mysterious ways and all that) favored Abel’s sacrifices, so Cain, frustrated and jealous, killed Abel. God condemned him to wander. Cain, Saramago is telling us, killed Abel because he couldn’t kill God, and then throughout the book, anything he does, including at the end where he kills Noah’s women and other servants on the Ark, is an effort (in vain!) to kill God. Because God is inexplicable, and worse, evil! He lets Satan make Job his play toy for no discernible reason. He indiscriminately kills men, women, and children in Sodom and Gomorrah. He seeks to wipe out the Earth with a great flood for reasons. Even his angels don’t understand His ways, and in fact, go against Him time and again, including allowing Eve to eat from the Garden of Eden after their banishment, so she and Adam, His first creations, can survive.

What’s interesting to consider is that Cain moves throughout the vignettes we are familiar with from the Old Testament to allow Cain, and us, to be witnesses to God’s inexplicable evil, which leads to the obvious question: Who and what is doing that for him? Is God working against Himself to hold Himself to account by allowing Cain a bird’s eye and fair view of His deeds, even though he later states only He can hold Himself to account? Or is something else at play here, and if that is the case, then is there a power greater than God (Time itself is hinted as being above God), thus rendering God not so godly after all?

Well, we don’t know the answer because God and Cain are still debating (and it’s interesting that Cain can even speak to God as an equal, as it were), and reports about their debates have ended, aka the book has ended (and sadly, Saramago’s life, too).

Apparently, Saramago did a similar book, but with Jesus (and also cast God as the villain) in his novel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which I now need to add to my to-read list. His point, I think, in so casting God as the villain is to emphasize that humans are getting a raw deal with God, and in point-of-fact, God is complicit in the first murder of Abel because of his inexplicable ways. That’s heavily implied in Cain.

As I said, Cain isn’t going to be for everyone, but for those who have also questioned the absurdities of the Old Testament and want to live vicariously through Cain’s wandering around on a donkey and verbally joust with God, then I would recommend this book to you.

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