Brief Reviews, VOLUME 5

Brief Review: Cain: A Novel by José Saramago

A Brief Review of Cain: A Novel
By José Saramago.
Hardback: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.
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Reviewed by J. Brent Bill

I love retellings of biblical stories, whether they be a fresh retelling of the actual story such as David Maine’s The Preservationist (about Noah) or reinventions like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  So I was excited when I received Cain by the Nobel winning Portuguese author Saramago.  Here was one of the world’s best writing about one of the world’s worst.  My excitement seemed warranted.

I was less excited than I was confused by the time I finished reading it,though.

That’s because this story of Cain has an almost Twilight Zone-ish feel.  Cain has slain Abel by page 28 and the rest of the book is the story of him travelling back and forth through time, interacting with other biblical and extra-biblical characters, arguing with God, and …  I felt that I could almost hear Rod Serling’s voice intoning: “Pleased to present for your consideration Mr. Cain barAdam, serious and successful farmer and murderer, who is not quite all right today. In order not to be crushed, Mr. Cain bar Adam will try to escape from his murderous act and God and land in another world that we call the Twilight Zone.”

If I had heard that voice earlier, it would have helped.

It’s not that Saramago doesn’t tell a good tale.  He does.  The writing is superb.  The characters, even those who are not sympathetic (such as God), are well drawn.  He does have his writing quirks here – an example is the lack of quotation marks to set off when a character is speaking.  The conversations got a bit confusing as I tried to figure out who was speaking now.  The dialogue ran together.  Maybe that was Saramago’s point – our conversations/arguments/etc. are not a dialogue.  They run together because they are all interior monologues with us taking different parts.  I’m not sure.  All I know was that I found it confusing.

Even more confusing was how Cain skips from one time to another, from one locale to another, from one biblical story to another.  He doesn’t seem too disconcerted by this happening (after the first time or two, at any rate), but I could never quite get used to it.

It wasn’t that I had some objection with Cain cavorting with Lilith, staying Abraham’s hand before he sacrifices Isaac (and the angel shows up late), showing up at Sinai, appearing at the Tower of Babel, or ending up on Noah’s ark.  Each of these stories is interesting in the way Saramago tells it, but they don’t hold together as a novel.  It feels more like a series of episodes of one damn thing after another than a novel with a plot.

That’s because, according to one of my best friends who’s a rabbi, I’m not Jewish.  Aaron read Cain at the same time I did.  He found it brilliant.  And he told me that that this “time travel stuff is quintessential Talmudic discourse – true midrash.”  He told me that The Talmud (the record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history) goes all over the place, including having a rabbi from the first century arguing with Moses.  “It’s not supposed to have a plot,” Aaron told me, “it’s discourse.”  So perhaps Saramago was intentionally being Talmudic.  Who knew?  I didn’t and it messed with my Christian mind and reading habits.

Cain is, to me, one of the most intriguing characters of Genesis.  And Saramago is at his best in this story when he has Cain and God in dialogue or Cain musing as he wanders.  Hmmm, there’s that discourse again.  God, as I mentioned earlier, is not an entirely, or even mostly, sympathetic character in this novel.  He (and God is a “he” here) feels pretty capricious – more like the often badly behaving Greek gods we’re used to reading about.  God is certainly no paragon of virtue in this story.  Hmmm, I guess that’s the point that Saramago is trying to make in this novel.  God does what God wants because God wants to do it.  If it seems evil or hard-hearted or kind, well, no matter.  That’s just how God is.  No wonder Cain can’t catch a break.  And so, Cain kills Abel because “he could not kill the lord.”

Indeed, Cain seems to be less about Cain and his story than it does with the entire early part of Genesis up to the Flood and Saramago’s question of, “What was God thinking?”

Not that that’s a bad question.  It’s just that putting in the mind and mouth of Cain makes for a story that demands that disbelief be suspended even more than usual, what with all the shifts in location, time, and characters.

Putting my admission of confusion aside, I did enjoy the book.  Saramago (who died in 2010) did a masterful job writing this, his last book.  I sensed that I was in the hands of a master, who, in spite of all the quirks making it a difficult read, was taking me exactly where he wanted me to go.  I appreciated the challenge and was never tempted to put it down.

So do I recommend it?  It depends.  If you want a straight narrative retelling of Cain’s story, imbued with awe and a God who makes sense, then “No.”  But, if you’re willing to go on a literary time travel adventure based on biblical characters who are trying to make sense of God, then “Yes.”  Especially if you’re ready for some theological discourse.   But be prepared.  Like a trip into the Twilight Zone, what you get in Cain is often not what you expect.

— ——

J. Brent Bill is a writer, photographer, and Quaker minister.  He works at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations and is the co-author (with Beth Booram) of the soon to be released Awake Your Senses: Exercises in Exploring the Wonder of God.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

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