José Saramago’s CAIM: a lost opportunity?



José Saramago, CAIM: Lisbon, Caminho, 2009


I offer some brief impressions on José Saramago’s latest novel, CAIM. Coming straight after the genial comedy of A VIAGEM DO ELEFANTE, CAIM reverses the mood altogether: it is one of its author’s blackest works, perhaps only to be compared with ENSAIO SOBRE A LUCIDEZ in its harshness. Saramago returns to the critique of Judeo-Christian belief-system that he began in O EVANGELHO SEGUNDO JESUS CRISTO, doing for the Old Testament what he did in the earlier novel for the Gospels.


Again as in O EVANGELHO, Saramago offers an atheist’s judgment on the Judeo-Christian God (‘o senhor’, ‘the Lord’), seen as a capricious and irrational tyrant. By focusing on the figure of Cain he places himself in a long line of writers who have, with varying degrees of orthodoxy or scepticism, revisited the myth of the primal murder from ‘Genesis’, among them Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, George Eliot, and, in Portugal, Jorge de Sena. The conceit that holds the book together is the appearance of Cain the wanderer as a character – onlooker or participant – in a whole sequence of Old Testament stories. Thus, Saramago revisits episodes from Genesis and other Old Testament books, such as the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and the golden calf, the fall of Jericho, the sufferings of Job, etc. The characters are virtually all scriptural other than the decidedly non-biblical Lilith, according to some Adam’s first wife, but here Cain’s lover.


The narrative stays fairly close to the biblical sources, until the culminating episode, a radical  rewriting of Noah’s Flood whose full details I leave the reader to discover. I will reveal that the book’s conclusion is bleak and despairing in the extreme. Meanwhile, however, I would draw attention to what Saramago has *not* done in this novel.


The biblical myth of Cain is ambivalent in the extreme. Cain sheds the first human blood, but humanity’s first shedder of blood as such is Abel, with his animal sacrifice. The mark on Cain’s brow is a sign of his crime but also a warning from God that no-one may lay hands on him. Cain’s punishment is not to wander forever, as many erroneously think, but to wander for a certain period until he becomes the founder of the first city, Enoch. His descendants settle there and invent and practise the arts and crafts of metallurgy, stockbreeding and music. Even if the Cainites are presumed to have perished later in the Flood, the arts they have invented remain. Cain and his family thus have a Promethean side to them, an aspect explored, ambiguously or otherwise, by Hugo and Eliot in their respective poems ‘La Conscience’ and ‘The Legend of Jubal’, but not taken up by Saramago. Equally, Byron, in his two dramas ‘Cain: A Mystery’ and ‘Heaven and Earth’, makes an eloquent case for Cain as cultural rebel and questioner of authority.


In CAIM, Abel’s brother and killer plays the role of eternal vagabond, not of founder of cities and arts. The city of Enoch appears in Saramago’s narrative, as does Cain’s son of the same name, but in this version the city already existed, presided over by its queen Lilith, when Cain arrived, and his seed through Enoch goes nowhere. Saramago has, quite simply, ignored the Promethean potential of the Cain-figure as rebel and founder of arts, and for all its eloquent critique of Judeo-Christian theology, his novel, I would argue, ultimately suffers from excessive stress on the figure’s more conventional wanderer aspect. Such a contention would, of course, require an exhaustive comparison with the biblical sources and with other literary representations of Cain. Nonetheless, my feeling is that Byron would win in the end.



Note added 18 January 2010:

A Portuguese translation of this review, by Cláudio Quaresma (Brazil),

is now on-line at:


Note added 19 November 2010:

The Portuguese version of this review has now been published in FAROL (Viana do Castelo), No 16, 2010, pp. 81-82 –

see entry on this blog for 18 November 2010.

Note added 29 July 2011:

A slightly different version of this review has been published in:

IJOWLAC (Indian Journal of World Literature and Culture) (Kolkata/Calcutta, India), Vol. 5-6, July 2010-January 2011, pp. 137-139 –

see entry on this blog, 29 July 2011.

That version is on-line at:



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