Cain: A Novel

  • José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 176 pp.

An atheist Nobel Prize-winning author, in his last novel, conjurs a God whose actions explain the agonies of existence

Reviewed by Susan M. Green

José Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, the first Portuguese writer to be so honored. He was known as a dedicated Communist and vehement atheist. Cain, his final novel, was published in 2009, the year before the author’s death; the present translation is the novel’s first publication in the United States. So what does a master writer near the end of his life, a professed nonbeliever, have to say about a seminal Biblical figure?

It turns out that the novel focuses as much on God as it does on Cain, perhaps the original villain in Western literature. Although the story of Cain is still synonymous with evil, the book presents the Lord as at least as wicked; the author’s lack of capitalization accentuates the parity between the two. After Abel’s murder, Cain argues that the Lord shares responsibility for the death because “you had the freedom to stop me killing abel, which was perfectly within your capabilities.” Although the Lord protests, ultimately he agrees that he bears part of the blame for Abel’s demise.

Cain’s punishment for the murder is to wander forever as a vagabond. In Saramago’s telling, Cain witnesses most of the dramatic events in Genesis. He watches the Lord slaughter all those living in Sodom and Gomorrah even after assuring Abraham that he would spare any innocents found there. When Cain, puzzled, remarks on the anomaly, Abraham insists that the Lord would surely have kept his promise. “What about the children?” Cain asks. Surely they were innocent. “oh my god, murmured abraham and his voice was like a groan.” Cain retorts: “Yes, your god perhaps, but not theirs.”

The Lord’s violent impulses lead to additional sins, including incest. After hearing that Lot’s daughters seduced their father, Cain notes sardonically that “the lord’s liberality in the matter of making babies had to do with the need to replace the considerable losses suffered, in the way of dead and wounded, by his and other people’s armies.” The Lord is greedy, too, demanding half the spoils of every battle that Moses undertakes; as a result, Cain concludes, “the lord is also what one can only describe as very rich,” for “war is obviously very good business indeed.”

The story of Job crystallizes Cain’s view of the Lord. The Lord wagers with Satan that Job will not deny the existence of God even if he is stripped of all his riches. Satan inflicts terrible suffering on Job, who refuses to deny God despite his torment. In Saramago’s version, Cain accompanies the angels sent to ensure that Satan does not violate the terms of the wager by putting Job to death. After witnessing Job’s agony, Cain protests that the omniscient Lord must have known before placing his bet that Job would not relent. “he made the wager because he knew he would win,” argues Cain, to which the angels respond, “that’s how it’s always been in heaven.”

Saramago portrays the Lord as bloodthirsty, greedy, deceitful and immoral. Worst of all, the Lord acts with impunity, especially regarding Job. The novel indeed highlights the most evil creature in Western literature – only he isn’t the title character. Whatever Cain’s transgressions, it is the Lord who ultimately is responsible.

So why would an atheist write what is effectively a biography of God? Like the rest of us, novelists often try to discern the reason for human suffering. The Catholic Church in which Saramago was raised can reconcile the agonies of existence with the notion of a loving God. An atheist might counter that the persistence of such misery proves that God does not exist. Cain may represent Saramago’s answer: Life is violent and painful; if there were a God, he would embody those characteristics. Saramago may be returning to the vernacular of his childhood in answering his end-of-life inquiry. Or, in the end, he might simply have been hedging his bets.

Susan M. Green ( is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

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