Jose Saramago
(Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
New York: Harcourt Inc., 2002 (from the original Portuguese of 2000)
ISBN # 0-15-100414-5
307 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2006

These comments are as much about me as they are Jose Saramagoís novel. That canít be helped. The book utterly overwhelmed me and has given me sense of power and hope that has astounded me. The central character is Cipriano Algor, a 64 year old potter. Perhaps it is the closeness of age and the similarity of worlds which he and I have experienced that made this book touch me so. Perhaps it is that Saramago and I think about the world in similar ways, though he was able to articulate and express his thoughts in ways that I not only could never, but could not even THINK them until he put them before me on the page. Then, at least, I could recognize them, though with fear and trembling. Now, if only like Cipriano, I can now figuratively get into that old beat-up van and drive off merrily into my own future, creating it as I go.

Cipriano Algor, his son-in-law Marcal Gacho and Marta Algor, Ciprianoís daughter and Marcalís wife, live together in a ramshackle home on the outskirts of a city in Portugal. The time seems contemporary. The Algor family have been potters for a century and still have the pottery of Ciprianoís grandfather, a workable, but not very efficient pottery.

The property itself is run down as is the area around it. We can picture any number of cities in the world with these belts of worn, sagging, rusting homesteads where the working poor live. And like so many the Algors and Marcal eek out a living on their own and live with dignity if with little money.

Closer to the edge of the city is the growing Center. A gigantic complex of housing and shops, effectively a whole seemingly self-contained city in itself. People have apartments there, and can live in a perfectly temperature controlled world with everything one needs for sale within the Center, and even a special room where one can go and experience artificial rain storms, snows, strong winds and sun. There is no need to leave the cave of the Center to experience the (assumed inferior) external world.

Marcal is a probationary security guard at the Center, hoping for a full-time job. Were he to get this promotion he would not only have job security but a tiny apartment in the Center which comes with the job. This would allow him to move there with Marta, and they would even include Cipriano, though his presence would create a very cramped situation.

As the novel opens the father and son-in-law are really just getting to know each other better, and slowly through the novel they grow closer, often sharing more intimately with each other that either husband and wife do or father and daughter.

Cipriano is extremely suspicious of the Center. It is so artificial and regulated. When he complains to Marcal he is told it is a city within the city. But he points out to Marcal that the Center is forever growing and is now larger than the city itself and constantly growing to where before long it will be enormously larger than the city.

At one level the novel is the deeply touching story of these three folks, a local widow and a found dog whom they name Found. It is the story of the growth of this small community of four people and a dog away from the Center to re-embrace a more natural and simple existence in the real and actual external world.

It would perhaps be too strong to say Cipriano is Jose Saramago. But I came away with that feeling. There is a deep passion in Cipriano for a world that is dying, and a profound resistance in Cipriano to embrace this modern and artificial society with its attempt to control virtually everything within the ďnaturalĒ world that may seem to present to the occupants any unpleasantness. Cipriano is wedded to the external world with its storms and winds, its hot and cold, and even its run down farm house with its ancient pottery works. Eventually the others come to his position and they strike out to find a place to escape this form of modernization.

Cipriano/Saramago never overtly argues against the Center and its way and for the ďtraditionalĒ world. But the novel sizzles with a passion for the world itself, especially with its traditions and ways to be, and a rejection of the artificial. One might well suspect Cipriano and his circle of just being Luddites who havenít been able to make the changes to modernity.

That may well be. But itís more than just an adjustment to something new. What becomes clear is we are talking about two very different ways to be in the world here, and two different ways of knowing the world. All the warts of the traditional world are laid out Ė the poverty, the run-downness, the lack of comforts, the dangers and uncertainties of the external world, particularly if one is a member of the underclass. However, Saramago also makes clear the sterility and loss of personal freedom, the controls and surveillance of the Center. It is also a world of a single class, the better off and secure. Ciprianoís family would never be allowed to live in the Center (though it could shop there), and it would be only via Marcalís job that the opening would come.

The journey of this group of five (I count the dog among them, a very important symbol of the natural world) from first just being outside the Center, then flirting with entering it for life to the final rejection and driving off into the sunset of we know not where, is a brilliant picture of the plight that faces most of us in these times.

I said in the first paragraph that the book moved me deeply and that I felt an especially connection to Cipriano, a man of my own age. Iíve realized in the past few years what a strain the world I now live in is on me. Cipriano and I came of age into adulthood with the incredible liberalness of the 1960s. In the circles I lived in I took it as ďnaturalĒ that one values equality, democracy, environmentalism, the unity of all peoples, a strong anti-war sentiment, a leaning to the working class and a profound suspicion of big business, big wealth and all politicians.

The contradictions were obvious. This ďnaturalĒ world in which I became an adult was never fully successful politically, the ideals were more dreams than realities. Politicians ruled, big business and the wealthy class prospered and increased their power, a power my group never really had. However, there were enormous changes in popular culture and individualism rose to new heights, and the (albeit often grudging) acceptance of more ďdifferenceĒ in the world increased dramatically.

All this until recently. Perhaps the changing times were the 90s, perhaps the earliest days of this new century. Gradually people like Cipriano, Saramago and me had to face it: We lost or at least are dramatically losing. The forces of repression abound, the class divisions have become starker than ever in our lifetimes, the society with a great deal of openness and individuality is being driven into theocracies of conservative morality and the destruction of individuality.

Perhaps the dreamy victory of Cipriano and his group, riding off into the sunset of hope and possibility is wild and contra-factual utopianism. Nonetheless it was deeply refreshing.

The book is called The Cave, but it is about The Center, and a cave only plays a minor role at the end. But it is a reference back to Platoís concept of the cave (and a quote from Plato is the bookís motto). There is an epistemological theme that we see the world darkly as images thrown on a cave wall, and it is our job to come to discern the real world with greater clarity. It is to offer a challenge to this clarity which seems to have been Saramagoís aim in writing the book.

Jose Saramago is a voice of the people, an author with incredible insight into the human condition, and clearly a person wedded to that dying world of the second half of the last century.

The novel is enriched with a second theme Ė a brilliant look at and into problems of human communication. The closest pair are Cipriano and his daughter Marta. They share so much, but even in their beautiful relationship they cannot fully and openly communicate. Even there in a nearly utopian relationship the difficulties of human communication rise. Similarly we see a beautiful development of respect and openness between Cipriano and Marcal, his son-in-law. Here, too, however, we watch the struggles and side streets of success though they try so hard and are so open. A much slower relationship to develop is between Cipriano and the village widow. It is obvious to us the readers that they simply belong together and surely will end up so. But they are both so bound to some of the traditions of an even earlier generation of decorum that they have a difficult time in coming to recognize their own love and need of one another.

Perhaps the most wonderful character of the novel is Found, the lost dog who turns up at the Algor household just when he is needed so much. He provides a profound contact with the natural world Ė an animal without as much of our limiting conscience, a being which follows its gut and gives generously in loyalty and love for decent treatment. Further Found drives them toward the ďnaturalĒ world since the Center has programmed out things as messy (literally and figuratively) as dogs and cats.

For any like me (and I think like Saramago) who might be threatened by the emerging world of sameness, the world which turns away from the natural, destroying the environment willy nilly in pursuit for ease and comfort, a world of limits on individuality and one that imposes religious values on those freedoms hard won in the last century, this is a beautiful book. Perhaps it is utopian and to that degree misleading, but it is hopeful, inspiring and calls us to face these issues in the clearer light of day, not in the caves of the Centers of the world.

A third feature of the novel, and of every Saramago book Iíve yet read, is the magnificent writing and the marvelous insights into human reality. There were so many passages which delighted and challenged me, not because of their relevance to the plot and central themes themselves, but just as individual units that stood on their own. I have selected several of these to share with you to reveal the joys and delights of reading Jose Saramago. I strongly suspect that were each reader to keep a log of such passages for him or herself , we would have a gigantic variety of passages, and eventually, nearly the whole book would be re-created for others in these collections of ďhighlights.Ē

My abbreviated set for this novel are:

  1. On the overview style of the writing: Itís as though Saramago has sat down in a chair and we asked: Tell us a story. And he looks off into space and begins, telling us of the main characters and even that Marcal and his wife made love and: ďOn the previous night, she became pregnant, although she doesnít know this yet.Ē I enjoyed this sort of direct communication between me the reader and the author about the character he was about to present.

  2. Cipriano and Marcal are riding along in a van. Cipriano has some of his pottery in the van to deliver and Marcal is in his security guard uniform. They take an illegal cut off through a residential area, as they have often done before, but theyíve never gotten a ticket. They assume it is good luck. Saramago writes:
    It did not occur to either of them at the real reason behind the continued tolerance or benevolent indifference of the traffic police was Marcal Gachoís uniform, that of a security guard working at the Center, rather than the result of multiple random lucky breaks or of stubborn fate, as they would doubtless have said if asked why they thought they had so far escaped being fined. Had MarÁal Gacho known this, he might have made more of the weight of authority conferred on him by his uniform, and had Cipriano Algor known this, he might have spoken to his son-in-law with less ironic condescension. It is true what people say, the young have the ability, but lack the wisdom. and the old have the wisdom, but lack the ability.
  3. There is a wonderful aside on ageing in our time:
    Marta was staring fervently at her father, with passionate intensity, and she was thinking, This is my old father, the forgivable overstatement of someone still in the early dawn of adulthood, one should not refer to a man of sixty-four, albeit rather low in spirits like the man in question, as old, that might have been the custom in the days when teeth began to fall out at thirty and the first wrinkles to appear at twenty-five, but nowadays, it is only from eighty years onward that old age, authentic and unambiguous and from which there can be no return, nor even any pretense at a return, begins, de facto and unapologetically, to deserve the name by which we designate our last days.
  4. A comments on reading: Marta and her father are discussing the clay figures they will make to try to sell to the Center.
    How come you know so much about the subject. Because Iíve lived, Iíve looked, Iíve read, and Iíve felt. What does reading do, You can learn almost everything from reading, But I read too, So you must know something, Now Iím not so sure, Youíll have to read differently then, How The same method doesnít work for everyone, each person has to invent his or her own, whichever suits them best, some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they donít understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason theyíre there is so that we can reach the farther shore, itís the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers donít have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching, Well observed, said Cipriano Algor, you have shown yet again that old people should never argue with the younger generations, we always end up losing, although we do learn a thing or two on the way.
  5. On both a dogís sense of beauty, and how digressions work in his fiction
    Found did not even blink, knowing perfectly well that what was being referred to was not the supply of plates to the Center, thatís ancient history now, no, thereís a woman involved all this, and it can only be that same Isaura Estudiosa whom he had seen from inside the van when his master delivered the water jug, a woman with a pretty face and a pretty figure, although we must point out that this is not an opinion formulated by Found, concepts like ugly and pretty do not exist for him, the canons of beauty are human ideas, Even if you were the ugliest of men, the dog Found would say of his master were he able to speak, your ugliness would have no meaning for me, I would only find you odd if you acquired a different smell or stroked my head in a different way The trouble with digressions is the ease with which the digressor can become distracted by diversions, making him lose the thread of words and events, as has just happened to Found, who caught only the second half of the following words spoken by Cipriano Algor. which is why, as you will notice, they do not start with a capital letter.
  6. On how change is a serious destruction of the past
    Cipriano Algor went to check how much wood they had and realized that it wasnít enough. For years he had cherished the idea that the time would come when the old wood-burning kiln would be demolished and in its place would rise a new kiln, a modern, gas-fired one, capable of reaching extremely high temperatures very fast and of producing excellent results. Inside himself, though, he knew that this would never happen, first, because it would require a lot of money, more than he would ever have, but also for other less materialistic reasons, such as knowing beforehand that it would sadden him to destroy what his grandfather had built and what his father had later perfected, if he did, it would be as if he were, quite literally, wiping them from the face of the earth, for the kiln sits precisely on the face of the earth. He had another reason, less easy to own up to, which he could dispatch in three words, Iím too old, but which, objectively, implied the use of pyrometers, pipes, security pilot lights, burners, in short, new techniques and new problems. There was, therefore, no alternative but to continue fueling the old kiln in the old way, with wood and wood and more wood, perhaps that is the hardest part of working with clay.
  7. On words: ďI think words were born to play with each other, they donít even know how to do anything else, and contrary to what people may say, there are no such things as empty words.Ē

  8. On having MEANING in life. Not just biological life.
    Even if you and MarÁal have to move to the Center first, Iíll stay here until Iíve finished the order, then Iíll come and join you as I promised, Thatís mad, Pa, Mad, foolish, illogical, you donít have a very high opinion of me, Itís mad wanting to do this work alone, how do you think I would feel knowing whatís going on here, And how do you think I would feel if I abandoned the work halfway through, you donít seem to understand that, at my age, I donít have that many things to hold on to, Youíve got me, youíll have your grandchild, Sorry, but thatís not enough, It will have to be enough when you come and live with us, Yes, I suppose it will, but at least I will have completed my last job, Donít be so melodramatic, Pa, who knows when your last job will be.
  9. Author discussing characters and consistency and tradition Isaura and Cipriano meet and donít know what to say. A very long silence ensues and the author discusses with us the readers what to do.
    The problem is a serious one requiring long, uninterrupted consideration, but the orderly logic and discipline of the story, which can, on occasions, be violated and, when appropriate, should be, will not permit us to leave Isaura Madruga and Cipriano Algor in this distressing situation any longer, standing there facing each other, silent and constrained, with the dog looking at them, unable to understand what is going on, with the clock on the wall that must be asking itself, as it tick-tocks on, what these two people want with time if they donít make some use of it. Something must be done. Yes, something, but not just anything. We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature. A character can be full of contradictions, but never incoherent, and if we insist on this point it is because, contrary to what dictionaries may say, incoherence and contradiction are not synonymous. A person or character contradicts himself within the bounds of his own inner coherence, whereas incoherence, which, far more than contradiction, is a constant behavioral characteristic, resists contradiction, eliminates it, cannot stand to live with it. From this point of view, and at the risk of falling into the paralyzing webs of paradox, we should not exclude the hypothesis that contradiction is, in fact, one of the most coherent contraries of incoherence. Oh dear, these speculations, perhaps not entirely without interest for those who do not content themselves with the apparent and accepted nature of concepts, have diverted us still further from the difficult situation in which we left Cipriano Algor and Isaura Madruga, alone with each other, while Found, realizing that nothing much was going to happen there, had decided to leave and return to the shade of the mulberry tree to continue his interrupted sleep.
  10. More on words obscuring things and silences too.
    Marta said that if he had such thoughts then he should share them with his daughter, who was there with him now, to which Cipriano Algor replied that talking to her about any thoughts he had would be a waste of time, because she was as familiar with them as he was himself, not word for word, of course, as if captured on tape, but she knew the underlying essence, and then she said that, in her humble opinion, the reality was quite different, she knew nothing about the underlying essence of his thoughts and, besides, many of the words he uttered were merely smoke screens, which, in a way, is hardly surprising, since words are often used for precisely that purpose, but itís worse still when the words remain unspoken and become a thick wall of silence, because, when confronted by such a wall, itís very hard to know what to do, Last night I sat up here waiting for you, Marcal went to bed after an hour, but I waited and waited, while you, my dear father, were off heaven knows where walking the dog, We went into the countryside somewhere, Ah, yes, the countryside, thereís nothing nicer than going for a walk in the countryside at night. when you canít even see where youíre putting your feet, You should have gone to bed, Thatís what I did in the end, before I turned into a statue, So thatís all right then, thereís nothing more to be said, No, itís not all right, Why not, Because you robbed me of what I most wanted at that moment, And what was that, To see you come back, thatís all, just to see you come back, One day youíll understand, Well, I certainly hope so, but no more words, please, Iím sick of words.
  11. Cipriano visits a ďsecretĒ door and is admonished by a guard who then tells Marcal, not knowing it is Marcalís father-in-law.
    Donít worry, itís just a formality, but take my advice, donít come here again, it could get you into trouble, being curious once is enough, besides, thereís nothing secret behind that door, there was once, but not now, In that case, why donít they remove the sign, asked Cipriano Algor, It acts as a lure so that we can find out who are the inquisitive ones living in the Center. The guard waited until Cipriano Algor had moved a few meters off, then followed him until he met a colleague and, in order to avoid being recognized, he passed the duty of surveillance on to him, What did he do, asked MarÁal Gacho, pretending unconcern, He was knocking at the secret door, Thatís hardly a serious offense, it happens several times a day, said MarÁal, relieved, Yes, but people have to learn not to be curious, to walk on by, not to stick their nose in where it isnít wanted, itís just a question of time and training, Or force, said MarÁal, Apart from certain very extreme cases, force is no longer necessary; I could have taken him in for interrogation, but I just gave him some good advice, used a bit of psychology, Right, Iíd better go after him, then, said MarÁal, I wouldnít want him to give me the slip, If you notice anything suspicious, tell me so that I can add it to the report and then we can both sign it. The other guard left, and Marcal continued to follow at a distance as his father-in-law explored two floors above, then he let him go. He wondered what would be the best thing to do, to talk to him and tell him to take care when wandering around the Center, or simply to pretend that he knew nothing about this very minor incident and to pray that nothing more serious happened. He chose the latter option, but when Cipriano Algor laughingly told him about it over supper, he had no alternative but to assume the role of mentor and ask him to behave in a way that would not attract the attention of guards or non- guards, If youíre going to live here, thatís the only correct way to proceed.
Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett