By Lola Cintado
MADRID – Portuguese author Jose Saramago takes an irreverent look at the Old Testament in his new novel, “Cain,” in which he absolves that Biblical villain of the killing of his brother and puts the blame squarely on God.
His Portuguese-language publisher, Zeferino Coelho, will present the novel at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October and the title is scheduled for release in bookstores in Portugal, Latin America and Spain by the end of that month.
The 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, meanwhile, will talk for the first time about the new book during its worldwide presentation in Lisbon.
But he told Efe in an e-mail interview from his summer home on the Spanish island of Lanzarote that his purpose in writing “Cain” was to convey the message that “God can’t be trusted.”
“What the hell kind of God is this who scorns Cain in order to praise Abel?” he said, referring to God’s rejection of Cain’s offering of produce while favoring Abel’s animal sacrifice, as told in the book of Genesis.
Almost 20 years after the release of his controversial novel “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” – a work that depicts Jesus as having a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene and whose nomination for a European literary prize was blocked by the Portuguese government – Saramago gives an irreverent, ironic and biting interpretation of different Biblical passages that is sure to trigger another backlash from the religious establishment.
“Some will (denounce the work),” Saramago said, “but the spectacle will be less interesting. The God of the Christians is not that (Old Testament) Jehovah. Besides, Catholics don’t read the Old Testament. I won’t be surprised if there’s a reaction from Jews. I’m used to it.”
“But I find it hard to understand how the Jewish people have made the Old Testament their sacred text. It’s a steady stream of absurdities that one man alone could never have invented. It took generations and generations to produce that monstrosity.”
Saramago said he doesn’t consider this book to be his special and definitive settling of scores with God – “accounts with God are never definitive,” the avowed atheist said – but rather with human beings who invented him.
“God, the devil, good, evil, all that is in our heads, not in heaven or hell, which we also invented. We don’t realize that, having invented God, we immediately enslaved ourselves to him,” the author said.
The 88-year-old denied that the proximity of death – he was diagnosed with a life-threatening respiratory illness two years ago – has made him think more about God.
“I assume that God doesn’t exist, so I didn’t have to call him in the grave situation I found myself. And if I called him, if he suddenly appeared, what would I tell him or ask him, to prolong my life?” he asked rhetorically.
“We’ll die when it’s our time to die. My doctors have saved me, Pilar (his wife and translator) has saved me, my excellent heart has saved me, in spite of my age. The rest is literature, and of the worst kind.”
A year ago, Saramago surprised readers with the humor, irony and sarcasm that filled “The Elephant’s Journey” – which tells of the real-life journey of an Indian elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in the 16th century – and he said “Cain” was written in a similar vein.
“It wasn’t deliberate or premeditated. Irony and humor appear in the first lines of both books. I could have rejected it and imposed a solemn tone on the narrative, but what’s there came to me on a silver platter. It would have been stupid to reject it.”
The author said he began thinking about “Cain” many years ago but only began writing it in December 2008 and finished it in less than four months. “I was in a type of trance. It had never happened to me before, at least with such intensity, with such strength,” Saramago told Efe.
Saramago is currently churning out books at a faster pace than ever, perhaps as part of an effort to stay alive.
“It’s true. Perhaps the best analogy would be that of the light of a candle blazing up higher just before it’s extinguished. In any case, don’t worry, I’m not planning on turning myself off any time soon,” Saramago said.
A letter from the president of the Saramago Foundation, Pilar del Rio, was posted this week on the author’s blog – blog.josesaramago.org – announcing the upcoming release of “Cain” and informing readers of the Nobel laureate that it will “not leave them indifferent.” EFE