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Book Forum: Literature   |    
The Cave
JAMES R. MERIKANGAS, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2335-2336. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2335
View Author and Article Information
Washington, D.C.

By Jose Saramago; translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. Orlando, Fla., Harcourt, 2002, 320 pp., $25.00; $14.00 (paper, Harvest Books, 2003).

Jose Saramago lives in the Canary Islands, where he writes in Portuguese. Being from a small country, and writing in a language that is not English or Spanish, he is less well-known in the United States than his work deserves. Although Portugal has been a nation since 1143, and had conquered much of Africa, India, and Asia (the Japanese word for "thank you" [arigato] derives from the Portuguese obrigado). The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1506 confirmed the division, by Pope Alexander IV, of the Christian world between Spain and Portugal. The dividing line, from the North Pole to the South Pole, gave Brazil, Africa, and Asia (except for the Philippines) to Portugal and all the rest of the Americas to Spain (1). As a result, most North Americans know the Spanish masters, such as Cervantes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but not the great writers of Portugal.

The Washington Post Book World has called Jose Saramago the "world’s greatest living novelist." He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. His body of work consists of remarkable feats of imagination and humanism, with profound expositions of the psychology of existence and the nuances of communication. Thanks to translator Margaret Jull Costa, those of us who cannot speak or read Portuguese (the third most widely spoken European language) can enjoy a prose that, unlike the poetry of Frost’s definition, is not lost in translation.

The Cave is the simple story of a potter, his daughter, his son-in-law, and a stray dog. They live in a humble home in a small village, near an expanding industrial/residential complex governed by a mysterious bureaucracy. Our hero, Cipriano Algor, 64 years old, is a widower who sells his pottery in the city. We are not told the era, the name of the city, or the country, but in lucid prose a story unfolds with the intensity of an epic adventure story, pulling us into the lives of this small family. Although the story may be allegorical, the almost surreal texture is not forced; rather, the language is quite plain, and the sentences are often very long, with no delineation of voice between characters in a "he-said-she-said" manner. As a result, the narrative flows as natural conversation, without the discontinuity that putting every speaker in quotes may produce. The profound wisdom expressed in this novel is so clear that one may think, "Yes, I knew that," but never did you hear it expressed so well. Even (or especially) the psychology of the dog is narrated in a way that will cause any pet owner to realize that these creatures exist to console and help their owners. The stray dog, whose inner thoughts are as valid as those of the humans, is in fact a character in the story. Konrad Lorenz may have not had such a grasp of the mind of the dog.

Saramago was born in 1922. Although not university educated (he was trained as a technician and employed as a laborer), he became a translator, and he has described himself as an essayist turned novelist. His work has been translated into more than 20 languages, a testament to the universality of the human emotions expressed in his novels.

In The Cave, Cipriano’s son-in-law has a job as a security guard in the city. To be promoted, he must move to company housing in the city with his wife and, of course, her father. The huge apartment complex in the city looks onto a shopping mall interior, without a blade of real grass but with every accommodation technology can provide. However, no dogs are allowed. The proposed move becomes a family crisis, made more complicated when plastic utensils and mass-produced containers supplant the demand for Cipriano’s pottery. Cipriano then attempts to start a new venture, producing pottery dolls, small figures of clay, fired in his ancient wood-burning kiln.

This may sound like a trite nature-versus-technology story, but it is much more than that. The family dynamics, the strained loyalties among parents, children, and in-laws, the prospect of love after the death of a spouse, and the disruptions of career and home are themes important to all people, not just to psychotherapists and social workers. It is with great detail and description of the commonplace that Saramago moves the narrative. His powers of observation provide insight into the life of his characters, allowing readers to make their own conclusions regarding their psychology. These are characters one learns genuinely to care for, and to wish well.

In another book by Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis(2), one of the characters is a dead poet, and the protagonist is a character in one of his poems. This may sound contrived, but, as in The Cave, the small details of daily life illuminate the action. In Blindness: A Novel(3) an epidemic of blindness spreads through a city. In an internment center established to contain the epidemic, the brutality and violence of mankind emerges in microcosm. The blind see bright white, instead of darkness, from which readers may draw their own conclusions about the metaphor of world war and the modern age of violence. In The Stone Raft(4) the Iberian Peninsula separates from the European continent and drifts out into the Atlantic. This rather unlikely scenario is related in matter-of-fact prose describing a classic quixotic quest with a Deux Cheveau automobile instead of a horse named Rocinante. Like the dog in The Cave, the car in The Stone Raft has thoughts and feelings, too.

Saramago, like Kafka, portrays the horror of unresponsive bureaucracy and, like Dostoyevsky, the moral struggle to understand the nature of evil and the meaning of life. The Cave harkens back to Plato, but unlike prisoners chained in the dark observing shadows on the wall, the readers of The Cave understand that although things are given names, pure forms are philosophical concepts that may only be aspired to by great literature such as that produced by Saramago.

Ergang R: Europe From the Renaissance to Waterloo. Boston, DC Heath, 1954, pp 102–103
 
Saramago J: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984). Orlando, Fla, Harcourt, 1991
 
Saramago J: Blindness: A Novel (1995). Orlando, Fla, Harcourt, 1998
 
Saramago J: The Stone Raft (1986). Orlando, Fla, Harcourt, 1996
 
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References

Ergang R: Europe From the Renaissance to Waterloo. Boston, DC Heath, 1954, pp 102–103
 
Saramago J: The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984). Orlando, Fla, Harcourt, 1991
 
Saramago J: Blindness: A Novel (1995). Orlando, Fla, Harcourt, 1998
 
Saramago J: The Stone Raft (1986). Orlando, Fla, Harcourt, 1996
 
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