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“Saramago juxtaposes an eminently readable narrative of work and poverty, class and desire, knowledge and timelessness—one in which God, too, as he faces Cain in the wake of Noah's Ark, emerges as far more human than expected.” —San Francisco Chronicle

In this, his last novel, José Saramago daringly reimagines the characters and narratives of the Old Testament, recalling his provocative The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. His tale runs from the Garden of Eden, when God realizes he has forgotten to give Adam and Eve the gift of speech, to the moment when Noah’s Ark lands on the dry peak of Ararat. Cain, the despised, the murderer, is Saramago’s protagonist.

Condemned to wander forever after he kills his brother Abel, Cain makes his way through the world in the company of a personable donkey. He is a witness to and participant in the stories of Isaac and Abraham, the destruction of the Tower of Babel, Moses and the golden calf, the trials of Job. The rapacious Queen Lilith takes him as her lover. An old man with two sheep on a rope crosses his path. And again and again, Cain encounters a God whose actions seem callous, cruel, and unjust. He confronts Him, he argues with Him. “And one thing we know for certain,” Saramago writes, “is that they continued to argue and are arguing still.”

A startling book—sensual, funny—and in all ways a fitting end to Saramago’s extraordinary career.

“A winkingly blasphemous retelling of the Old Testament . . . Saramago, playfully stretching his chatty late style, pokes holes in the stated logic of the Biblical God throughout the novel.” —The New Yorker

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547840178
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/09/2012
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 813,687
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.44(d)

About the Author

JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Read an Excerpt


When the lord, also known as god, realized 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. In an excess of rage, surprising in someone who could have solved any problem simply by issuing another quick fiat, he rushed over to adam and eve and unceremoniously, no half-measures, stuck his tongue down the throats of first one and then the other. From the texts which, over the centuries, have provided a somewhat random record of those remote times, be it of events that might, at some future date, be awarded canonical status and others deemed to be the fruit of apocryphal and irredeemably heretical imaginations, it is not at all clear what kind of tongue was being referred to here, whether the moist, flexible muscle that moves around in the buccal cavity and occasionally outside it too, or the gift of speech, also known as language, that the lord had so regrettably forgotten to give them and about which we know nothing, since not a trace of it remains, not even a heart engraved on the bark of a tree, accompanied by some sentimental message, something along the lines of I love eve. It’s likely that the lord’s violent assault on his offspring’s silent tongues had another motive, namely, given that, in principle, you can’t have one without the other, that of putting them in contact with the deepest depths of their physical being, the so-called perturbations of the inner self, so that, in future, they could, with some authority, speak of those dark and labyrinthine disquiets out of whose window, the mouth, their tongues were already peering. Well, anything is possible. With the praiseworthy scrupulousness of any skilled craftsman, making up with due humility for his earlier negligence, the lord wanted to make sure that his mistake had been corrected, and so he asked adam, What’s your name, and the man replied, I’m adam, your first-born. Then the creator turned to the woman, And what is your name, I’m Eve, the first lady, she replied rather unnecessarily, since there was no other. The lord was satisfied and bade farewell with a fatherly See you later, then, and went about his business. And, for the first time, adam said to eve, Let’s go to bed.
  Seth, their third child, will only come into the world one hundred and thirty years later, not because his mother’s womb required that amount of time to complete the making of a new descendant, but because the gonads of father and mother, the testes and ovaries respectively, had taken more than a century to mature and to develop sufficient generative power. It must be pointed out to our more impatient readers, first, that the fiat was given once and once only, second, that men and women are not sausage machines, and, third, that hormones are very complicated things, they can’t just be produced from one day to the next, nor can they be found in pharmacies or supermarkets, you have to let matters take their course. Before seth came into the world, cain had already arrived, followed, shortly afterwards, by abel. By the way, one must not underestimate the intense boredom of all those years spent without neighbors, without distractions, without some small child crawling about between kitchen and living room, with no other visitors but the lord, and even his visits were few and very brief, interspersed by long intervals of absence, ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years, so we can easily imagine that the sole occupants of that earthly paradise must have felt like poor orphans abandoned in the forest of the universe, not that they would have been able to explain what the words orphan and abandoned meant. It’s true that every now and then, although again not with any great frequency, adam would say to eve, Let’s go to bed, but their conjugal routine, aggravated, in their case, due to inexperience, by the complete lack of alternative positions to adopt, proved to be as destructive as an invasion of woodworm to a roof beam. You hardly notice anything from the outside, just a little dust here and there falling from tiny holes, but, inside, it’s quite a different matter, and the collapse of something that had seemed so sturdy will not be long in coming. In such situations, there are those who say that a child can have an enlivening effect, if not on the libido, which is the work of chemicals far more complex than merely learning how to change a diaper, then at least on feelings, which, you must admit, is no small gain. As for the lord and his sporadic visits, the first was to see if adam and eve had had any problems setting up house, the second to find out what benefits they had gleaned from their experience of country life and the third to warn them that he would not be back for a while, because he had to do the rounds of the other paradises that exist in the heavens. Indeed, he would not appear again until much later, on a date that has not been recorded, in order to expel the unhappy couple from the garden of eden for the heinous crime of having eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This episode, which gave rise to the first definition of a hitherto unknown concept, original sin, has never been satisfactorily explained. Firstly, even the most rudimentary of intelligences would have no difficulty in grasping that being properly informed about something is always preferable to being ignorant, especially in such delicate matters as good and evil, which could put anyone at risk, quite unwittingly, of being consigned to eternal damnation in a hell that had not yet been invented. Secondly, the lord showed a lamentable lack of foresight, because if he really didn’t want them to eat that fruit, it would have been easy enough simply not to have planted the tree or to have put it somewhere else or surrounded it with barbed wire. Thirdly, it wasn’t because they had disobeyed god’s instructions that adam and eve discovered they were naked. They were already stark naked when they went to bed, and if the lord had never noticed such an evident lack of modesty, the fault must lie with a father’s blindness, an apparently incurable infliction that prevents us from seeing that our children are, after all, neither better nor worse than all the others.
  A point of order. Before we continue with this instructive and definitive history of cain, undertaken with unprecedented boldness, it might be advisable to introduce some clarity into the chronology of events. So, let us begin by clearing up certain malicious doubts about adam’s ability to make a child when he was one hundred and thirty years old. At first sight, if we stick to the fertility indices of modern times, no, he clearly wouldn’t, but during the world’s infancy, those same one hundred and thirty years would have represented a vigorous adolescence that not even the most precocious of casanovas would have sneered at. It is, moreover, worth remembering that adam lived until he was nine hundred and thirty years old, thus narrowly missing being drowned in the great flood, for he died when lamech was still alive, lamech being the father of noah, the future builder of the ark. He would, therefore, have had the time and leisure to make all the children he did make and many more if he had so wished. As we said earlier, adam’s second child, born after cain, was abel, a handsome, fair-haired boy, who, having been the object of the best proofs of the lord’s esteem, met a very sticky end indeed. The third child, as we also said, was called seth, but he will not form part of this narrative, which we are writing step by step with all the meticulousness of a historian, and so we’ll leave him here, just a name and nothing more. There are those who say that the idea of creating a religion was born in his head, but we have given abundant attention to such ticklish matters in the past, with reprehensible levity, according to some experts, and in terms that will doubtless prove deleterious to us when it comes to the final judgment at which everyone will be condemned, either for doing too much or too little. We are only interested now in the family of which father adam is the head, although he proved to be a very bad head, and we really can’t put it any other way, since all it took was for his wife to offer him the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil and our illogical first patriarch, after a certain amount of persuasion, more for appearance’s sake than out of any real conviction, duly choked on it, leaving us men marked forever by that irritating piece of apple that will neither go up nor down. There are also those who say that the reason adam didn’t manage to swallow the whole of that fateful fruit was because the lord suddenly turned up, demanding to know what was going on. Now before we forget about it completely or before our continuation of the story renders the fact redundant because it comes too late, we will tell you about the stealthy, almost clandestine visit the lord made to the garden of eden one hot summer night. As usual, adam and eve were sleeping, naked, beside each other, not touching, a deceptively edifying image of the most perfect innocence. They did not wake up, and the lord did not wake them either. He had gone there with the intention of correcting a slight flaw, which, as he had finally realized, seriously marred his creations, and that flaw, can you believe it, was the lack of a navel. The pale skin of his babies, untouched by the gentle sun of paradise, was too naked, too vulnerable, and in a way obscene, if that word existed then. Quickly, in case they should wake up, god reached out and very lightly pressed adam’s belly with the tip of his forefinger, making a rapid circling movement, and there was a navel. The same procedure, carried out on eve, produced similar results, with the one important difference that her navel was much better as regards design, shape and the delicacy of its folds. This was the last time that the lord looked upon his work and saw that it was good.
  Fifty years and one day after this fortunate surgical intervention, which gave rise to a new era in the aesthetics of the human body under the consensual motto that everything about it can always be improved, disaster struck. With a crack of thunder, the lord appeared. He was dressed differently from usual, in keeping perhaps with what would become the new imperial fashion in heaven, wearing a triple crown on his head and wielding a scepter as if it were a cudgel. I am the lord, he cried, I am he. A mortal silence fell over the garden of eden, not a sound, not even the buzz of a wasp, the barking of a dog, the trilling of a bird, or the trumpeting of an elephant. Nothing, only the chattering of a flock of starlings that had congregated in a leafy olive tree, there since the garden was first created, and which suddenly took flight as one, so many, hundreds, if not thousands of them, that they nearly obscured the sky. Who has disobeyed my orders, who has eaten of the fruit of my tree, asked god, fixing adam with a look that can only be described as coruscating, a word which, though highly expressive, has sadly fallen out of use. In desperation, the poor man tried in vain to swallow the telltale piece of apple, but his voice refused to come out, neither fore nor aft. Answer, said the angry voice of the lord, who was brandishing his scepter in a most threatening manner. Plucking up his courage, and conscious of how wrong it was to put the blame on someone else, adam said, The woman you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of that tree and I did eat. The lord turned on the woman and asked, What is this that you have done, The serpent beguiled me and I did eat, Liar, deceiver, there are no serpents in paradise, Lord, I did not say that there were serpents in paradise, but I did have a dream in which a serpent appeared to me, saying, So god has forbidden you to eat the fruit of every tree in the garden, and I said no, that wasn’t true, that the only tree whose fruit we could not eat was the one that grows in the middle of paradise, for we would die if we touched it, Serpents can’t speak, at most they hiss, said the lord, The serpent in my dream spoke, And may one know what else the serpent said, asked the lord, trying to give the words a mocking tone that ill accorded with the celestial dignity of his robes, The serpent said that we wouldn’t die, Oh, I see, the lord’s irony was becoming more and more marked, it would seem that this serpent thinks he knows more than I do, That is what I dreamed, my lord, that you didn’t want us to eat of that fruit because we would open our eyes and know good and evil just as you know them, lord, And what did you do, you fallen, frivolous woman, when you woke from this delightful dream, I went straight to the tree, ate the fruit and brought some back for adam, who also ate, It got stuck just here, said adam, touching his throat, Right, said the lord, if that’s the way you want it, that’s the way it shall be, from now on you can bid farewell to the good life, you, eve, will not only suffer all the discomforts of pregnancy, morning sickness included, you will give birth in pain, and yet you will still feel desire for your husband, and he shall rule over you, Poor me, said eve, what a bad beginning, and what a sad fate will be mine, You should have thought of that before, and as for you, adam, the ground is cursed because of you, and in sorrow will you eat of it all of your days, it will bring forth only thorns and thistles, and you will have to eat the herbs of the fields, only by the sweat of your brow will you manage to grow enough to eat, until you return to the ground out of which you came, wretched adam, for dust you are and to dust you will return. That said, the lord plucked out of the air a couple of animal skins to cover the nakedness of adam and eve, who exchanged knowing winks, for they had known they were naked from the very first day and had made the most of it too. Then the lord said, In knowing good and evil, man has become like a god, and if you were to eat of the fruit of the tree of life you would gain eternal life, whatever next, two gods in one universe, that is why I am expelling you and your wife from the garden of eden, at whose gate I will place an angel armed with a flaming sword, who will let no one enter, now go, leave, I never want to see you again. Bearing on their backs the stinking animal hides, staggering along on unsteady legs, adam and eve resembled two orangutans who had stood upright for the first time. Outside of the garden of eden, the earth was arid and inhospitable, the lord was not exaggerating when he threatened adam with thorns and thistles. As he had so rightly said, the good life was over.

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From the Publisher

"Cain's vagabond journey builds to a stunning climax that, like the book itself, is a fitting capstone to a remarkable career ."
-Publishers Weekly, starred

  "Saramago transforms familiar stories boldly , but with an intricate respect for their power and for the mysterious power of storytelling itself. Far from merely inverting the biblical tales or turning them inside out, he folds and refolds them in a prismatic, shadowly light ."-Robert Pinsky, New York Times Book Review


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Cain 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Dr_Wilson_Trivino More than 1 year ago
The biblical story of Cain and Abel is about the rivalry between competing siblings who fought to garner the attention of the Lord. We know from our biblical studies that one wins out but what happen after the divisive clash? José Saramago in Cain: A Novel takes the tale further, the surviving brother Cain, is banished and goes on a journey. This path leads past Noah¿s world to Sodom and then he stumbles on the building of the great ark. Saramago blends in the expectation of man being a mirror of God but filled with human frailties, lust, carnal desires, and vengefulness are the short comings of the son of God. Cain: A Novel by José Saramago is a powerful reminder of dark side of the human spirit that wavers between good and evil. Man¿s inner struggles are rooted in the sins of our forefathers. José Saramago (1922-2010) was the author of many works and is a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ronald_Beasley More than 1 year ago
Saramago's Cain is a satire that takes the moral ideas of the Old Testament to their logical conclusions. From the beginning, God appears on stage as the antagonist, or if you like, the Antichrist, to Cain, a simple farmer who only wants his sacrifice of crops to be as appreciated as Abel's sacrifice of livestock. Both the agrarian culture and the cruel, unfair 'justice' of the ancient 'Holy Land' are on display here, as is the true, terrifying nature of Old Testament morality. Surely such an evil collection of screeds was written to be savaged in later centuries by a great writer like Saramago? Who could find morality in the Book of Job, where God allows Satan to torture one of his beloved creations simply to prove a point, especially since God, being God, would already know the outcome? What is there to be learned in the story of Noah and the Ark, except that God apparently got it wrong in the first creation and was insane enough to try it again WITH THE SAME CREATURES? These and other stories are skewered by Cain, probably the most hated man in the Old Testament, if not all 66 books in the Bible. The real surprise with this story is that it hasn't been done before, given the countless unexplored possibilities of such a character. Although Baudelaire used Cain as a leader for the meek against the unjust majesty of God, Saramago is the first writer I know of who rightly decided that the Old Testament could use a bracing shot of humor. I can only imagine how much pleasure this book gives in the original Portuguese. In a long, admirably provocative career, Saramago impatiently dragged us along the first steps toward a future, more perfect Enlightenment, this time completely overthrowing the voluntary shackles of religion and hokey spiritualism and replacing them with humor, irony, and a secular morality grounded in human experience.
RobbieBobby44 More than 1 year ago
A wholly irreverent and fascinating tale of Cain, who kills his brother because God, for some reason, doesn't like his offering as much as Abel's, and then has to get the heck outta dodge. Wandering from one land to another (even whisked through different time periods), he experiences major ups and downs - notably coming across Abraham and Isaac, taking away the knife and asking "Exactly what is your problem?!? You're about to kill your own boy because you were told to? Ya freakin' basket case..." A number of verbal disputes with God are also included, and it ends in high fashion with Cain on the Ark (SPOILER: most of the precious few selected to ride the big boat and repopulate the Earth don't survive the trip). NOT for the faint of heart or the pious as murder, mayhem and wild sex are in plentiful supply.
annbury on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A short novel dealing with a big subject, that being the relationship between man and God -- or more accurately western man and the Judeo-Christian God. The title identifies the protagonist: Cain, who murdered his brother Abel, and was cursed by God to be a "fugitive and wanderer". The novel traces his wanderings, through the landscape (temporal as well as physical) of the Torah. Cain is present at the destruction of the Tower of Babel, at the worshipping of the Golden Calf, at the obliteration of Sodom and Gomorrah, etc. etc. etc. On the occasions, Cain condemns God's behavior, in making the innocent suffer along with the guilty. God does not come off particularly well in these exchanges, while Cain seems a sort of Prometheus, an advocate of humane behavior on the part of the divine. All in all, this is an interesting take on a very old question, as well as a story that holds the reader's interest. It sent me back to my Bible (yes, those horrors really are "by the Book"). and will probably send me back to Saramago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Don't buy if you are expecting to read of the clan wars of ca in and seth and the Clan of Seth apparantly won as Noah's family was the only eight to urvive the flood. This makes a mockery of the Holy Bible, Gods Cherbim, and religion itself. This by the way is a very old book by a long dead trash writer. Don't let yourselves pay the trash writers decendants another dime. This also is not a novel, just an idiot ideaology of an idiot.
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DoctorDavidNJ More than 1 year ago
This short novel is a wickedly devilish, irreverent take on the familiar stories of Genesis. Cain is imagined as a Zelig-like character who is miraculously present at the major events of the first book of the Old Testament, including Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac, the building of Noah's Ark, the fall of Jericho, the halting of the sun in the sky to permit Joshua's victory, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, and others. Cain and the narrator's viewpoints on the behavior of God and His angels could reflect the cynical perspective of a Holden Caulfield. This is a mind-bending, eyebrow-raising, laugh-out-loud tour de force.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago