The Cave, by Jose Saramago; translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harcourt Inc., 2000, 307 pp. pb
Jose Saramago’s The Cave passes nearly all my tests for what makes both a good read and serious literature. I say “nearly all” not because it failed any of the tests, but because it made me forget several of the irritable criteria I apply simply by the extremity by which it passed the most important test.
That test is elegantly straight forward: I want books—or movies or anything else I judge to be art—to make me want to continue to be a human being. Partly, this is an application of American poet Jack Spicer’s adage that we don’t need art to tell us how shitty the world is. But my revision takes what Spicer suggested further, offering gradations from neutral (okay, this doesn’t make me want to kill myself) to the beatific (we’re all angels and saints), the latter of which I’ve never actually reached and don’t want to because I’m pretty sure it would land me back where I started, in the shittiness of everyday existence.
The test isn’t a plea for light and breezy. The books of W.G. Sebald, all of which are devoid of laughter and conventional hope, pass the test by the sheer wondrousness of their observational detail, and by the evocative stories that cascade from virtually every page. His world was a gloomy, fascinating place in which the lost die and the only solace is knowledge. That wasn’t enough, one suspects, for Sebald himself, who risked his depressive nature each time he put pen to paper and eventually succumbed. Phillip Roth likewise passes my test, even though nearly all his novels are about people self-destructing in the consumerist void in which westerners now live, but there is a dark intelligent laughter within the existential combat he depicts that nearly always raises his hero-victims above the mire.
What Saramago does is equally risky, or was before he won the Nobel. His novels have an unsual degree of reader-resistant surface, employing a format that doesn’t distinguish between dialogue, monologue and description. This turns out to be irritating only until one’s eye and brain acclimatizes–about 30 pages—at which point the apparent jumble reveals itself as a matrix that subverts the casual attention with which most of us read. At that point it becomes clear just how differently Saramago forces you to read, and how much normal novelistic conventions allow readers to skip. Within his apparent syntactical and expository jumble he loads often startling insets and insights that conventional formats would allow—even encourage—readers to ignore.
The Cave is about a 64 year old potter named Cipriano Algor, his daughter Marta and son-in-law Marcal, a stray dog named “Found”, a widow. It concerns the end of the potter’s life-long occupation at the hands of “The Center”, which abruptly stops buying his crockery even while it is enticing him to become a Center resident through the son-in-law, who works there as a security guard and aspires to become a “resident” security guard. Not very promising, really: simple artisanal virtue colliding with corporate consumerism and its social control mechanisms, with which all of us are already intimate.
But Saramago makes something marvelous from it, giving dignity to his characters and their predicament without sentimentalizing a shred of them or it. He does this by making the intelligence and humanity they have dynamic within the limited frames he uses. Primary among these, but never openly prosletized is that intelligence is the generous and inclusive element in being—human or not—and that this intelligence is unremittingly sweet. In Saramago’s universe, intelligence without generosity and sweetness isn’t intelligence.
I don’t know whether this is true, but since I would like it to be, I suspended disbelief for the temporary experience of it, and thus come to believe, momentarily and without reluctance, in a sweet intelligence within my own that I have not much recognized. This is Saramago’s crafted definition of beauty, the only one that, across a lifetime, he has chosen to recognize. It has no element of conscious pride in itself and its productivities (Cipriano Algor is utterly uninterested in elevating the quality of his pottery, or in authenticating the work methods he uses with tradition or history. He does suspect—or is it Saramago–that the intelligence of the brain is not subservient or wholly connected to the intelligence of the human hand. Manual dexterity, they suggest, confers a tier of meaning not available elsewise, and that the complex relations between the two—or four—generate the sweetness that the story uncovers so frequently and effortlessly in events. The ratiocinative, self-serving intelligence of The Center, is for Saramago, of another, lesser dispensation—powerful and ascendant, yet not irresistible. His characters meet this other intelligence head on, and if they do not defeat it, at least are not submerged by it.
But Saramago is not a romantic. The world he depicts will seem remarkably similar to the world most of us live in. The cave of the book’s title is at once an essentialization of the means by which corporations seek to imprison the human spirit, and it is also Plato’s cave, wherein life is experienced in reflected light—shadows against a wall.
I’m not sure I understand Plato’s metaphor and its philosophical mechanics any better now than I ever have but I certainly understand Saramago’s cave. People conscient of other living things and processes are a paradise I also understand, and so are people determined to cultivate their own specificity and generosity. Saramago actively argues that such people—however low they sit in the new scale of values globality brings–are better off than smothering in virtuality’s overstuffed, featureless bosom—or, put another way, better off poor in rural Portugal than in Walt Disney World.
In Saramago’s hands, this is not a simple-minded proposition. While I’m in his world, I believe it. After I leave, it remains as an evanescence sparkling in the gloom of plastic commodities and their exchange.
1013 w. April 4, 2004