Having written the hackles-raising The Gospel According To Jesus Christ, Portuguese poet, journalist, and novelist José Saramago was well experienced in humanizing the heavenly. Before his death in 2010, the Nobel-laureate aimed higher still with Cain, a slim, self-satisfied book that pits the supposed original murderer against the rightful title-bearer: God. The skepticism once applied to the New Testament is here applied to the Old, and though re-contextualizing the story of Cain and Abel isn’t a new idea—Hermann Hesse’s Demian also comes to mind—Saramago’s charming pugnacity and probing curiosity kick up some fresh dust.
That’s partly down to the fact that Saramago doesn’t restrict himself to the killing. After Cain slays his brother in a fit of pique and is branded with that famous mark, he becomes unstuck from time and transforms into a Bible-trekking Zelig who pairs modern values with a mythical sex drive. An extra-Biblical stint as Lilith’s bodyguard-turned-lover leads to Cain fleeing the city of Enoch and playing a role in Abraham’s binding of Isaac (the angel runs late, so Cain thwarts the sacrifice), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and eventually the great flood.
Saramago’s idiosyncratic prose (translated by longtime collaborator Margaret Jull Costa) is especially effective here: Page-long sentences compound and intensify, with commas and occasional capitalizations as the only mile-markers. This narrative voice is doggedly anti-immersive, offering a perspective on a petty, hardly omnipotent, often bloodthirsty god that lifts the disturbing, jagged edges back out of stories that have been tumbled smooth through retelling. If Lot was too drunk to recognize it was his own daughter seducing him, how did he even manage to perform sexually? Why did God appear in person before the Flood, but wear a column of cloud or a tower of flame afterward? Was he embarrassed over the presumably innocent children who’d been consumed during his destruction of Sodom? And does replacing Job’s family with a brand-spanking-new one after he proved his faith really balance the scales? Saramago’s smirk is practically audible during some of his retellings, and he can occasionally lapse into the gleefully destructive tone of a teenager discovering his first biblical inconsistency. It can get dark too, when Saramago’s pessimism—about God, about religion, about mankind—bubbles up through the playfulness. But after a lifetime of absorbing biblical narratives, either passively or actively, it can be nearly impossible to read them with fresh eyes. Even if Cain wasn’t such a nimble, pleasurable read, it would still be valuable for the way it makes the familiar unfamiliar.