Jose Saramago
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
ISBN # 978-0-547-41989-3
159 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2012

It is a joy to be back into a novel by Jose Saramago, my 15th time. Some might be surprised, knowing that he only published 14 novels, but I so misunderstood his novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, that 12 years after my first reading I went back and re-read it after studying a good deal about the real Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. Thus for me his 14 novels came out to be 15 “different” reads.

CAIN is to the Hebrew Scripture what THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST was to the New Testament, a witty, sassy, irreverent send up of this text. I would imagine some religious folks might find it over the top and even sacrilegious, but others will find it to be a brilliant spoof, and intellectually challenging at the same time. In any case it is a delightful read.

“The Gospel” followed the life of Jesus in a fairly chronological order and just gave a very different slant on his life and teaching. CAIN centers on the imagined life of Cain, son of Adam and Eve and slayer of his brother Abel, but Saramago hops around in time, and Biblical episodes, not treating them chronologically, but within what he refers to as “different presents”. However, in similar fashion to “The Gospel” Saramago challenges the literal events of the scriptures and ridicules any sort of literal reading. Further, the supposedly evil Cain becomes a good guy, moral hero in some ways, believable human in others.

The Biblical stories we encounter are such as the lives of Lilith and Noah, the Tower of Babel, the Abraham and Isaac story and so on. I don’t want to detail his treatment since the element of surprise if often an important part of his humor. However, below, following a warning of potential SPOILERS, I will talk about some of my favorite moments in the novel.

While the novel is enormous fun and many laughs, some quite serious intellectual provocations and a most creative look at the Hebrew Scriptures, I don’t think it quite measures up to the wit or creativity of “The Gospel.” First of all it is much shorter, and secondly, if one has already read “The Gospel,” the reader already has a set of expectations against which to measure Cain. However, I simply loved it, often laughed aloud, frequent ran into my partner’s room where she would be busy at her computer and plump down to read her passages. I just couldn’t hold it in. He made me contemplate his own vision of morality and his bitter, but humorous, challenge to the concept of the Judeo/Christian God.

I highly recommend it for all, but for those who would be offended by some humor addressed at the nature of God as presented in those books, or those not willing to deal with the not so subtle criticism of the concept of God in those works, then maybe this novel is not for you.


In the first episode Cain chances upon Noah and his wife Lilith. Cain becomes her lover and does what Noah cannot, makes her with child. Noah wants him killed by her servants (who are in Noah’s pay), but the special “mark” of Cain saves him. At one point Lilith and Cain are talking about what to do with Noah and his jealousy. She suggests that Cain kill him, but he says that’s just not his sort of thing, why doesn’t she do it? And in marvelous Saramago irony and humor she replies:

“I don’t think I would be capable . . .” Cain replies: “Men kill women everyday, who knows, perhaps by killing him you would start a new trend.”

In any case it is time for Cain to move on, it seems God is sending him off to avoid further collision with Noah, and now that he has a son Noah can carry on his duties to God. But where is Cain going? God doesn’t help:

“. . . no road map, or passport or recommendations for hotels and restaurants, it was how journeys used to be made, leaving things to chance, or, as they used to say even then, in the lap of the gods.”

On this “road” that is no road at all, he and his donkey are in a dessert. They have no idea where they are going and eventually come to a mountain, the donkey knows to climb it and how to do so, and they come into a lush green valley that is close to the paradise his parents had lived in. He wonders:

“So are we in the future, then, we ask having seen a few films and read a few books on the subject. Yes, that is the usual formula used to explain what appears to have happened here, the future, we say, and we breathe more easily, now that we have placed a label on it . . . (but) the land is the same, but has various presents . . .”

This tactic that he moves into different “presents” allows him to hop around within the scripture as he wishes.

Saramago hops from this meeting with Lilith and Noah to coming upon Abraham just as he is about to kill Isaac. However, Cain jumps in and saves Isaac. Cain blasts Abraham for his “unfatherly” behavior and when Abraham explains himself Cain takes it that this is clear evidence that God is not trustworthy.

“. . . the lord ordered Abraham to sacrifice his own son and he did so as naturally as if he were asking for a glass or water, which means it was a deep-seated habit of his.”

In a hilarious passage seconds after Cain stays the hand of Abraham, God’s angel arrived – late – got delayed. Cain is, meanwhile, raging at Abraham, at God and the angel. However, the angel defends himself with the cocky reply:

“Better late than never.”

Cain’s marvelous reply is typical Saramago:

“. . . that’s where you’re wrong, never is no the opposite of late, it is too late . . .” the angel then replies: “Oh no, a rationalist. . .”

In the same passage Saramago shows that talent of raising very serious issues with his humor. He had Isaac furious at this father and demanding what kind of father are you and why did you do this and Abraham explains that God ordered this. Isaac isn’t very convinced that this is such a great idea, or even believable and asks:

“And if that lord had a son, would he order him to be killed as well, asked Isaac, (Abraham or Saramago’s reply), Time will tell. . .”

So Cain moves on and stumbles into Babel at the time of the tower. When he meets the people they are very proud of their tower, but very soon God destroys it. They are shocked. A leader explains to Cain that they built it to honor God, showing him that they have used the talents he gave them to learn these skills and the tower was to honor God.

The leader concludes – in one of my favorite sections that:

1. The Lord is jealous

2. He doesn’t like to see people happy.

The great insight Saramago offers at this spot is classic:

“The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstanding with god, for he doesn’t understand us, and we don’t understand him.”

Next Cain returns to Abraham at a later time, meeting with the Lord when Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed. Cain believes there had to have been some innocent people, even if only the small children. He asks this and is told, yes, of course they were innocent. Saramago has Abraham saying:

“. . . Oh my god, murmured Abraham and his voice was like a groan. Yes, your god is perhaps not theirs.”

He moves on to Moses on the mountain with God ordering them to slay all the enemies and thousands die, as do many at the wall of Jericho, God again killing so many.

Eventually he ends up back with Lilith at a later time in life and tells her:

“Well, I’m not sure I was chosen, but I learned one thing, What’s that, That our god, the creator of heaven and earth, is completely mad.”

Cain eventually rebels, and ends the novel with the killing of God’s chosen women on Noah’s ark, in order that God cannot continue with what Cain sees as his madness in his brutal and murdering defense of “his people.” The line will now not go forward for want of women to bear the children.

It is a very challenging novel, perhaps the second most funny of all his novels and definitely the most bitter and angry of

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett