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the daily review, thurs., dec 29

his file picture shows Nobel laureate Portuguese writer Jose Saramago arriving for the opening of an exhibition dedicated to his work at Ajuda Palace in Lisbon on April 23, 2008.JOAO CORTESAO

Portuguese Nobel-laureate José Saramago's final novel, the posthumous Cain, focuses harshly on "the lord" of the Hebrew Bible. His protagonist is Cain, whose condemned wanderings are imagined as not merely geographic, but as "sudden time-travelling shifts," in which Cain witnesses the Lord's many atrocities.

From the beginning, Cain contests the Lord's arbitrariness and injustice: "Am I my brother's keeper, You killed him, Yes, I did, but you are the one who is really to blame, I would have given my life for him if you had not destroyed mine, It was the question of putting you to the test, But why put to the test the very thing you yourself created, Because I am the sovereign lord of all things…"

Cain's journeys bring many lessons. From the destruction of the Tower of Babel; to the mountain where Abraham is about to slaughter Isaac ("nothing is impossible for the lord, Not even error and crime, asked Isaac, Especially error and crime …"); to the immolation of Sodom and Gomorrah ("There must have been innocent people in Sodom and in the other cities that were burned, If so, the lord would have kept the promise he made to me to save their lives, What about the children, said Cain, surely the children were innocent ..."); to the slaughter of soldiers who worshipped the golden calf ("here … was clear, irrefutable proof of his wickedness, three thousand men killed simply because he was angered by the creation of a supposed rival…"); to the testing of Job ("… for God, justice is an empty word, and now he's going to make Job suffer because of a bet and no one will hold him to account…").

After long witness to "the inevitable and, by now, monotonous toll of deaths and casualties, apart from the usual destructions and even more usual fires," Cain has "learned one thing, What's that? That our God, creator of heaven and earth, is completely mad. … Only a madman unaware of what he was doing would admit to being directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and then behave as if nothing had happened, unless, of course, it's not a case of real, authentic madness, but evil pure and simple…"

As a result of his condemned role, "for Cain there can never be any joy, Cain is the man who killed his brother, Cain is the man born to witness the unspeakable, Cain is the man who hates God."

This bitter nihilism is Saramago's own. Though he hedges his narrator's role ("mere repeaters as we are of ancient stories, constantly wavering between the most ingenuous credulity and the most resolute skepticism"), Saramago's reflections echo Cain's: "Now, though, the lord conceals himself in columns of smoke, as if he preferred not to be seen. As mere observers of events, we are of the view that he feels ashamed of some of his less palatable actions, for example, those innocent children in Sodom devoured by his divine fire. … The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with God, for he doesn't understand us, and we don't understand him."

In another invocation of Cain and Abel, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges explored the possibility of at least inter-human forgiveness. In Borges's story, the brothers encounter each other in the desert after Abel's death and silently eat together, until Cain, remembering his crime, begs forgiveness. "'Was it you that killed me, or did I kill you?' Abel answered. 'I don't remember any more; here we are, together, like before.'"

Saramago, by contrast, does not yield even a tenuous space for reconciliation "between brothers." This is perhaps unsurprising given Saramago's pessimism regarding humanity in his didactic "parables" – Blindness, Seeing and The Cave. Yet I had hoped for more nuance and subtlety in the final novel from the man who wrote The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, All the Names and Death with Interruptions.

Instead, Saramago's Cain decides to put an end to the horrific farce, killing Noah and his family on the ark while the Lord is busy drowning the rest of humanity. The Lord is stunned: "What about the new human race I promised, There was one, but won't be another and no one will miss it, You are indeed Cain, the vile, wicked killer of your own brother."

Though Saramago's Lord and Cain are not done with each other ("it seems likely that they argued with each other on many other occasions, and one thing we know for certain is that they continued to argue and are arguing still"), humanity itself is pronounced finished, as Cain declares in its final, awful sentence – Saramago's last literary words: "The story, though, is over, there will be nothing more to tell."

Amos Friedland did graduate work on atrocity and forgiveness, before completing his law degree at Yale Law School. He is a trial lawyer in New York and at work on a manuscript, The Book of Job: God Under Law.

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