Who will punish the lord?

Robert Alter

José Saramago’s last work of fiction, published in Portugal in 2009, the year before he died, created something of a furore there. It is less likely to ruffle feathers in the English-speaking world, where scathing critiques of the Bible, in fiction and even in biblical scholarship, have been commonplace since the 18th century. Cain is obviously a companion piece to Saramago’s The Gospel according to Jesus Christ (1994), which proposed a revisionist view of the New Testament; this book turns its attention to the Old. The relationship between the two novels is by no means symmetrical: Cain is very different both in the attitudes that inform it and in its narrative strategies.

Saramago, an anarcho-communist, has no patience with biblical theology, but he is much more forgiving towards the New Testament than the Old. In The Gospel according to Jesus Christ he shows sympathy with Jesus and the task of salvation he undertakes. God the Father does not come off very well, especially because he has hit on the perverse scheme of sacrificing his son, while a rustic figure first cast as an angel but who turns out to be the devil is altogether more morally attractive. This devil is not very diabolic, and serves as an angelic enough spiritual guide for Jesus. The Gospel according to Jesus Christ is a fairly conventional historical novel, varied only by brief interpolations of contemporary Portuguese life and a few passing references to modern thinkers. The New Testament miracles appear, with no hint of irony, though Jesus is made more of a creature of this world than he is in the Gospels. (Rather predictably, he discovers the raptures of carnal love with Mary Magdalene, a less interesting decision than D.H. Lawrence’s in The Man Who Died to involve him with a priestess of Isis.) Just three years before The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, Saramago far more elaborately and far more brilliantly interwove a contemporary story with the fictional invention of the past in The History of the Siege of Lisbon, perhaps his best novel.

Cain’s most engaging moments are in Saramago’s whimsical recasting of the biblical materials. The first sentence of the book, an illustration of Margaret Jull Costa’s deft translation, strikes this note:

When the lord, also known as god, realised that adam and eve, although perfect in every outward aspect, could not utter a word or make even the most primitive of sounds, he must have felt annoyed with himself, for there was no one else in the garden of eden whom he could blame for this grave oversight, after all, the other animals, who were, like the two humans, the product of his divine command, already had a voice of their own, be it a bellow, a roar, a croak, a chirp, a whistle or a cackle.

These opening lines establish the perception of God as a bit of a blunderer, inclined to petulance, given to correcting divine mistakes in ill-considered ways. That image has at least some grounding in biblical representation, especially in Genesis, where God is imagined in emphatically anthropomorphic terms. The notion, on the other hand, that the first man and woman were initially without language is Saramago’s invention for satiric ends: J’s narrative in Genesis makes perfectly clear that the first human (the Hebrew ’adam is a common noun, not a name) is endowed with language and uses it to give names to the animals.

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