Microviews Vol. 12: Saramago, Birch, Antunes

on Saturday, July 23, 2011
Cain by Jose Saramago

So remember how, a couple of years before he died, Saramago managed to right royally piss everyone off one last time while being interviewed about his most recent book? The epithets flew thick and fast: heretic, anti-semite, nasty pastie (ok, so I sort of made that last one up, but it was one of my favourites from my schoolyard days). Anyway, two years on and Cain is finally available in English so we who partook of the mudslinging can get a better feel for what all the fuss was about. And damnit if I don't find myself kind of regretting having said the things I did.

There is a beautifully poetic symmetry in the fact that the last book Portugal's great curmudgeon (and Nobel Laureate) wrote was a 'revised' take on the first book ever written - The Old Testament. And in true Saramago form, he didn't exactly use the exercise to make peace with his maker so much as pick a fight in advance of meeting him. Cain is a peculiar little book; playful, excoriating and chekily blasphemous. We all know the story of Cain and Abel, but Saramago uses the first murderer's subsequent immortality as a device to explore the nature of God's working throughout the remainder of the bible. Destined to wander from place to place, Cain becomes a minor character in all the important biblical episodes. Whether stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac (Cain has to step in because the angel God had sent had a mechanical wing malfunction), shacking up with and impregnating Lilith, ploughing Job's fields as his boss is subjected to ever more horrible tortures, standing beneath Mount Sinai when God unleashes his fury against the Golden Calf idolators or just helping Lot and his family out of Sodom and Gemorah, Cain bears witness to a Lord who is anything but benevolent and forgiving. Saramago makes no apologies for forcing his message down your throat - God is brutal, has no conscience and quite willingly destroys lives (even of those who show him absolute devotion). Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book, however, is not the argument but what lies beneath. Saramago seems not to question God's existence. He exists, the author suggests, but he is unworthy of your devotion.

To my mind, Saramago was one of the few laureates not to suffer a post-Nobel slump. Stylistically, this is him at his very best, playing with time and space such that the flashes between episodes seem natural (they occur in what amounts to parallel universes), allowing the book to come full circle and end with one of Genesis's earliest stories, that of Noah and the ark. As the water subsides, Saramago has Cain, the immortal wandering Jew, finally get his showdown with God. It is an incredible scene, one that justifies the Quantum Leap stylings, and containing a punchline so perfectly ingenious that you can't help but feel that, in the lifelong battle Saramago waged with God, when all was said and done, it was the writer who had the last laugh.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Last time a boy mucked around with a tiger and got caught up in a shipwreck, it landed Yann Martel a Booker, so it is little surprise that the punters are buzzing about Carol Birch's latest offering. Dig a little deeper and the similarities don't exactly fade into the background. The shipwreck itself (which involves a bunch of sailors and a couple of pigs, but no unlikely furry friends) is supposedly based on the sinking of the Essex but bears a much more striking resemblance to the facts in the classic British case of Dudley and Stephens, itself the inspiration for the naming of the tiger in Life of Pi. Richard Parker, the lawyers amongst you may recall, was the boy who was eaten by his mates, and for whose murder the defendants pleaded necessity. A hundred and fifty years on and the precedent still stands (though, in the actual case, they failed and were hanged).

But don't get too sucked in by the spin. Birch's book isn't a philosophical slice of dreamy magical realism but, rather, a harsh adventure-cum-survival tale on the high seas. It takes a while to get moving, as little Jaffy Brown falls under the sway of Jamrach, a Faginesque trader of exotic animals, and is sent on a ship in search of some mythical dragon (which I gather is a komodo). He and his expedition mates do manage to snare one in the jungles of who-knows-where, but the token crazy guy releases it mid-way through the voyage home, the thing goes beserk and, voila, the ship sinks. Up to there it is a pretty stock standard seafaring adventure. However, once the ship is down and the survivors are left to float aimlessly for months on two lifeboats, the novel takes a deeper, darker turn.

Birch's depiction of starvation, elemental batterings, interpersonal conflict and just sheer desperation are brilliantly evocative and spectacularly painful to behold. It is sad and hopeless, increasingly debased and ultimately apocalyptic. Fantastic! Unfortunately, however, it is not enough to lift Jamrach's Menagerie above the first one hundred pages' narrative slump. But at least it redeemed my obsessive compulsive need to finish the thing. A decent book, but don't go slapping down your hard earned bucks at the local betting agency just yet.

The Land At The End Of The World by Antonio Lobo Antunes

Call me a cynic, but I find it difficult to view the republication of this Portuguese master's second novel as anything but cheap opportunism by a publisher keen to cash in on the rekindled fear of colonialism stirred up by the the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the very least it is a small act of political publishing protest aimed squarely in America's direction. Thankfully, The Land At The End Of The World is a staggering work of documentary fiction which well deserves to be introduced to a whole new generation of readers.

Based on the author's own experience as an army medic in Angola it is one of the bleakest anti-colonialism novels you are ever likely to encounter. Think Celine minus the virulent anti-Semitism, add an extra dollop of De Sade and you get the picture. Presented as an ongoing confession to a lover (or, quite possibly, a prostitute), it slides seamlessly between near pornographic fantasy and brutal descriptions of what the narrator has seen while on duty in "the arsehole of the world". Antunes stays on point throughout, keen to ram home his disdain for those anonymous politicians and generals who send young men off to die in the name of imperial expansion. The visceral descriptions of rotting corpses, war crimes and other indignities are unrelenting, as is the portrayal a man suffering the trauma of having witnessed (and perhaps perpetrated) these atrocities. The rationale behind publishing this of all Antunes's novels might be suspect, but its ongoing prescience and unadulterated power are most certainly not. Deeply disturbing, but a must read.


Post a Comment