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The Cave

by JosT Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
352 pages,
ISBN: 0151004145


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A Cave of Man's Making
by Joan Givner

Jos+ Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for literature, was born in 1922, but it was in the 1980s that he became a full-time writer, and began the series of novels that established his reputation. He achieved wide recognition for his novel Blindness (translated into English in 1997), the harrowing fable of a community dehumanized by an epidemic of blindness. That novel, and his subsequent one, All the Names, brought comparisons with the works of Camus, Orwell, Beckett, and especially Kafka.
Saramago also has something in common with the winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize. It might seem preposterous to compare him with Faulkner, given the geographically-imposed cultural and racial differences, and especially since Faulkner had a tendency to particularize his region while Saramago resists localizing his stories. Yet Faulkner too was a writer whose fictions could be read individually as allegories, and collectively as a tragic fable of his region's history from its barbaric beginnings to its degenerate present.
Above all, it is Saramago's prose that is reminiscent of Faulkner, who grew up listening to the tales of earlier generations. That nurturing is reflected in an essentially oral style that looks forbidding on the page, with its meandering convoluted sentences, but is most effective when read aloud with a steady yarning insistence.
Saramago had been nurtured by a storytelling grandparent. He has said that on hot summer nights he would sleep outdoors with his swineherd grandfather, drifting into sleep as he listened to the old man's legends and memories. He began his Nobel lecture by saying, "The wisest man I ever knew in my whole life could not read or write"¨words one can more easily imagine being spoken by Faulkner than by anyone living in the large cosmopolitan cities of Europe.
JosT Saramago The bucolic setting of The Cave resembles the village of Saramago's childhood. It is a small plot of earth, with a family home, a pottery, and a bench under a mulberry tree. Saramago's distinctive style, rooted in the oral, story-telling tradition of such a place, is uncluttered by the protocols usually required for published work. Possibly his resistance to the tyranny of orthographic uniformity is also a legacy of his days as a copy-editor. That resistance is illustrated by the final part of a father-daughter dialogue that flows without period or paragraph indentation for almost a page:
there's no need for explanations, Who is this woman, She's Isaura Estudiosa, the one who was widowed a few months back, She's still a young woman, Now, look, I'm not considering getting married again if that's what you're thinking, If I did think that, I wasn't aware of it, though perhaps I should have, then you wouldn't have to stay here all alone, since you refuse to come and live with us at the Center, Really, I have no intention of getting married again, still less to the first woman I meet, as for the rest, I would be grateful to you not to spoil my evening, Sorry, I didn't mean to.

When the narrator addresses the reader to opine that the potter's craft is not incompatible with the good manners of the upper class, he is a little more formal:

These Algors are quick to learn what they are taught and are capable of putting it into practice in order to drive it home, and Marta, who belongs to the latest generation and is, therefore, more favoured by developmental aids, already had the great good fortune of going to study in the city, well, those large centers of population have to have some advantages over villages.

At the same time, this narrator can be very tedious with his home-spun philosophizing, and his digressive observations on the minutiae of family life, or human-canine relations, as in the following peroration on the potter's automatic withdrawal of his hand from his dog's wet nose: proof, if it were needed, that not all has been resolved in the relationship between human persons and canine persons, perhaps because that dampness and coldness awakens old fears in the ancient part of our brain, the slow, viscous caress of some giant slug, the chill, undulating touch of a serpent, the glacial breath of a cave inhabited by beings from another world. So much so that Cipriano Algor really does withdraw his hand, although the fact that he immediately strokes Found's head, clearly by way of an apology, must be interpreted as a sign that one day he might react differently, always supposing, of course, that their shared life together lasts long enough for what currently manifests itself as instinctive repugnance to become mere habit.

Over the lives of these country people¨Cipriano the potter, his daughter Marta, and his son-in-law Martal¨looms the Center, a self-contained residential and office complex with entertainment, shopping, and medical facilities. Although it is some distance from their village, the family depends on it for its livelihood. It employs Martal as a security guard, and is the sole outlet for the pottery's goods. However, since residence there is a condition of Martal's promotion, the characters are drawn with a terrible inevitability into its ugly vortex.
Although it resembles the sinister institutions depicted in the novels that precede it, the Center does not set the pervasive tone of The Cave. The characters are menaced by it, but not ultimately trapped. Literary success and his advancing years seem to have mellowed Saramago so that his latest novel is softer in tone, with his ironic humour given freer reign, and his savage indignation in abeyance. Its outcome is less bleak, its characters individualized and rounded. Above all, the family unit is portrayed with great tenderness, though not idealized. The banalities that constitute family discourse are yawningly rehearsed, and "the emotional blackmail at which families excel" is embodied in Martal's mean-spirited parents. Their son is alienated, his duty visits home are a torment, and it is a measure of their crassness that they long to move to the Center.
Cipriano's work as a potter makes him a natural representative of the artist; he has served a long apprenticeship in the craft of his forebears only to find his skill rendered obsolete by an influx of inferior, mass-produced, synthetic products. After the initial shock of rejection, however, he tries to adapt to the marketplace and create something new. He suspects that the new product will meet the same fate as the old, but he knows that a potter's life becomes meaningless if he stops making pots. That knowledge links him with the writer in Blindness who continues to put words on the page even when he can no longer read them.
The Algors switch from dishes and jugs to making figurines, choosing six basic models from the vast range of human types¨a Mandarin, an Eskimo, a bearded Assyrian, a nurse, a jester, and a clown. Possibly, Saramago's intention, in this very schematized novel, is to reduce the human types to a law-giver, a hunter, a ruler, a nurturing woman, an entertainer and a peasant. The Algors plan a limited production of these objets d'art but the Center, typically, demands the mass-production of a huge number. The purchaser for the Center then submits a fraction of that number to a marketing-research survey, finds that they have limited appeal, pays handsomely for those used in the survey, and rejects the rest.
There is a time-honoured association between the potter and the Judeo-Christian God of creation¨a character with whom Saramago, an avowed atheist, has had a longstanding quarrel. His revisionist version of the gospels in 1991 became something of cause celebre. The Vatican strenuously objected to the novel, as it did later to his Nobel Prize. And it was the Portuguese government's censorship of the same novel that caused him to leave Portugal for the Canary Islands. The Cave obliquely reprises the theme of the The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by showing a potter who, in sharp contrast to the biblical God, cares lovingly for his creatures.
Cipriano's sacramental attitude is evident in the rituals of his figurines' creation, and their disposal. He might have treated his rejected dishes as garbage; instead, he bestows them on both strangers and friends, and stores the remainder in a cave. There he stacks them carefully so that they remain intact against a future time when the cave might be excavated, and his wares valued. When he must abandon his unsold figurines, he sets them about his yard, flawed and the perfect specimens alike, so that the elements can return them to the clay from which he fashioned them.
The authorities of the Center are ruthless and god-like in their treatment of human beings and merchandise. They discard both according to the whims of fashion in an ever-accelerating system of rapid turnover and built-in obsolescence. The officials' veneer of polite amiability while handing out their heartless verdicts, might seem cruel. Yet the officials understand that their own days are numbered, and that they too are destined for redundancy. A kind of bovine resignation binds them to the system, and prevents them from mounting any resistance.
In the intricate symmetry of the novel, the womb/ tomb, cave/grave images form a recurring pattern. The kiln in which the multiples of six figurines are created prefigures the cave in which the rejected pottery is buried; that burial place, in turn, foreshadows the discovery under the Center of the cave containing six manacled corpses.
That key image, deployed in the novel's title, its epigraph, and its grotesque climactic scene, is taken from the allegory of the cave in book seven of Plato's Republic. There those who apprehend the world merely by their senses, without engagement of their powers of reasoning, are memorably compared to slaves watching shadows cast on a wall by a fire that flickers behind them. This reference firmly places the novel within the coherent body of Saramago's work. The dark vision that informs it is one of desolate human beings blinded by overwhelming forces, internal and external, that threaten to stamp out their very identity and humanity.
The final note of The Cave, however, is not one of doom. The original trio¨increased by Cipriano's new love, the young couple's unborn child, and the anthropomorphic dog, called 'Found'¨has doubled in size. As a group, they have the collective will to avoid a living death. Their destination at the end of the novel is uncertain, but everything indicates that the family will prevail. ˛
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