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A clay that shapes the potter

The Cave, A Novel, Jose Saramago, Translated from the Portuguese, by Margaret Jull Costa, Harcourt: 308 pp., $25

November 10, 2002|Benjamin Kunkel | Benjamin Kunkel is an occasional contributor to Book Review.

It's often been suggested how alike God and the novelist are, especially by people who believe in the novel and don't believe in God. The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago particularly invites the comparison. It's not only that Saramago exhibits as a creator such a miraculous combination of power and ease, that his air of enormous wisdom coexists with a marked tetchiness or that he follows the activities of his people with such pained concern. In "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" (1991), he made the rivalry explicit. His Jesus of Nazareth emerges from this heretical novel as a more complete and persuasive literary character than we get from the evangelists. Saramago writes of Jesus in a tone of loving superiority; he describes the kid as a father might. And even as he treats the earnest and decent, somewhat humorless carpenter's son as a moral exemplar, he announces that "if another man's son had been chosen, we are confident that whoever he was, he would have given us just as much food for thought as Jesus."

Saramago is always like this: generously sententious, warm and wicked, royal in his tone, democratic in his affections. Theologians used to refer to the condescension of God's becoming man -- and that term does better than most to characterize Saramago's special way with his characters. If such condescension sounds off-putting, then it should be pointed out that Jane Austen has a similar manner. She knows her heroines' frailties but also knows their desires before they do and wants to see them gratified. By contrast, the God of "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" seeks his own glory over the welfare of his followers. When Jesus asks God whether his sacrifice will be the last that God requires, he is met with one of Saramago's most astonishing passages: a nine-page catalog of divinely sanctioned martyrdom and massacre.

Saramago joined the Portuguese Communist Party in 1968 and remains a Marxist to this day. What is remarkable is to read him and find yourself rooting against religious fundamentalism and market fundamentalism in something like the way that, reading "Pride and Prejudice," you pray for Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy to get married. Of course Saramago understands that politics and marriage are not so simple. As his serious and unpopular politics confirm, the grand old man (Saramago is 80 this year) is more than a mere vague humanist. The atheist god of his created worlds, Saramago urges a distinct creed.

Cipriano Algor is a 64-year-old widower and potter threatened not so much by mortality as by obsolescence. The jugs and vases he has been making all his life no longer sell as before, and "The Cave" begins as his contract with the Center -- a giant burgeoning residential mall that dominates the landscape of his unnamed country -- is abruptly terminated. As one character says in another Saramago novel, "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis," "This is the first loneliness, to feel that we are useless." Cipriano sees no option but to follow his daughter and son-in-law to the Center, where the son-in-law works as a security guard (a growth industry, one gathers, in this stratified society) and has hopes of being granted residential status.

Like "Blindness" and "All the Names," "The Cave" is an allegorical novel alive through its details -- its mulberry tree and dog, its van and potter's kiln -- but judiciously unspecific as to physiognomy and place, so that the characters' faces and their city may be filled in with the thought of our own. It is also more a love story and more programmatically leftist than its predecessors. If the Center seems too pat a symbol for the increasing identification of the marketplace with human life, Saramago's feel for work and love are another thing. His long fluid sentences, richly stocked with folk wisdom, swerve through psychology and the physical world with equal assurance and lend his novels a rare quality of permanence; it's as if only a story confirmed in its shape many times before could be so confidently told.

Cipriano's daughter Marta proposes a final bid for economic viability. Why not collaborate on a line of clay dolls? Maybe these will find favor with the Center's resident-consumers. (Marta's other, unannounced design is to make a match between her father and a young widow named Estudiosa.) The molding and firing of a small raceof figurines becomes not only a matter of private renewal but also a metaphor for human self-creation, or the usurpation of God. Saramago's symbolism is never of the Freudian kind, force-fed by the unconscious. He is wry and openhanded about his meanings, and he supplies them to his characters with typical warm generosity. The initial work on the dolls he calls "the first day of creation," and as Cipriano digs through the kiln for the first fired pieces, "the ashes became hotter, but not enough to burn him, they were merely warm, like human skin, and just as smooth and soft."

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