"The Cave"by José Saramago Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa Harcourt, Inc.
New York. 2002. 305 pages.
Review by Tom Savage
Jose Saramago's latest novel, The Cave, is a masterpiece. It breaks down the distinctions between high and low (class) and challenges the limits of what we think of as human consciousness. It is a great philosophical novel. Lest you decide to stop reading at this point, let me point out that the philosophical starting point for this book is Plato's parable of the cave (thus the title), not some pseudo-hip postmodernist deconstructionist mumbo jumbo. Even the academic bywaters of logical positivism and existentialism are bypassed, although Saramago may be familiar with the literary byproducts of the latter movement. What seems to be going on here, aside from the basic plot which is fairly simple, are permutations of Plato, Descartes ("I think therefore I am"), a kind of super psychological interest in the nature of consciousness, and a form of anthropological or religious "animism." This may be tongue in cheek, at least in part. Saramago, Portugal's leading novelist and a winner of the Nobel Prize, seems to be having fun with the dry and somewhat dusty academic discipline into which Western philosophy has sunk since it lost its religious/anti-religious context and became more concerned with arguing over the right words with which to express the truth rather than the content of that truth itself.
The basic plot is this: Cipriano Algor, a potter, a potter, lives with his daughter and son in law. His livelihood depends upon a large housing complex/shopping mall called The Center which, early in the novel, decides to stop buying his ceramic pots. He and his daughter turn to making small figurines in various shapes. The Center agrees to order several hundred of these figurines. When the figurines don't sell, they cancel the order. As a factotum in capitalism's work slavery until you die machine, Cipriano's life should be over. But it isn't. His son in law is a security guard in the Center who is waiting for a promotion which will allow him and his wife to move into the Center. Cipriano has little choice but to join his family in the Center. Meanwhile he has begun or rebegun a relationship with an elderly widow. Toward the end of the novel that relationship takes off, so to speak. Early on in The Cave, Cipriano finds a runaway dog, names it Found, and brings it along with him throughout the book.
One of the odd distinctions of Saramago's world in The Cave is that everybody and everything in it thinks. The dog Found is allowed thoughts and opinions. While recent scientific research has determined or speculated that animals have a kind of consciousness not that unsimilar to ours, they still lack words for the most part. Putting words into the mouths of animals is, of course, a cliche device from secondrate television of long ago ("Mr. Ed"), bad movies, and sentimental, mostly second rate stuff aimed a animal lovers who love animals because they have failed to love other human beings and use dogs, cats, or whatever, as substitutes for the lovelife/family they never succeeded in creating or sustaining for long. But Saramago is on a much higher level here. The people, the dog, even inanimate objects all have thoughts that are worth thinking. His genius arises, in part, out of the fact that he makes us believe that these thoughts could arise in the minds of lowly potters and the people around them (presumably illiterate or semi-literate) rather than in the minds of intellectuals, to whom such thought is usually consigned. Even the thoughts imputed to the dog and to inanimate things (at one point a clock is reputed to have an opinion) are intelligent ... The only stupid people in this book are the overseers of purchasing at The Center. Of course, there would have to be some uptight assholes (as bosses) in the book or it would fail to encompass the whole of humanity as it manages to do. Fortunately, there are no priests. What we have here is a kind of animistically charged universe where a kind of surrealistic effect is realized within a totally realistic and believable context.
If you are young and perhaps pressed for time (too busy playing with machines or distracted by sex-life passing for lovelife?) you might be thinking: "I don't have time to read novels anymore." if you ever did. Then you turn on the computer. the television, watch a movie on the VCR or DVD player, or go looking somewhere else for the immediate gratification our society promises but never delivers. You would be wrong, in this case, to ignore this book out of some generation-X impatience with anything which might force you to think. Because none of these illiterate or semi-literate characters are dumb, you might feel a little put upon that the class distinction between them and you, with your degrees and empty, technical knowledge of constantly updating machines, is being challenged. If your interest in all forms of literature rest only in safe spaces where you feel you find reflections of yourselves, your experiences, your so-called lives, you may have to make contact with your own humanity at least once before you die or become too old to change. This great novel might be a good place to start. At least since Shakespeare, great literature has taught mere self-conscious animals how to be human beings. But perhaps I underestimate you. Never let any critic's intellectual chip on the shoulder come between you and a great book, piece of music, or work of art. The reviewer exists, at least in this context, only to excite your interest or to steer you away from trash. Whatever else, from his own imperfections, he may add to what he is telling you could be his own problems, not yours.
Saramago's style consists of long paragraphs. Although in many ways they are dissimilar, this is one feature of his writing he shares with Proust. Another is long sentences. But Saramago's style, both in The Cave and in Blindness, is to extend sentences almost indefinitely by using commas where you would normally expect to find periods. Whether this is done from a kind of personal eccentricity or as attempt to demonstrate interconnectedness, it is hard to say. Perhaps, after nearly twenty novels, Saramago just got tired of confining himself within the limitations of grammar and syntax. He also dispenses with the use of quotation marks when his characters speak. Often what different characters say or think is included within the same paragraph. While this might seem confusing, in fact, it is not. It could be said that, since everything that happens or is thought arises out of the mind of the author, then why not? But Saramago rarely intrudes with a narrative voice. It is quite remarkable in a way that, after a short period of time, we become so familiar with the characters that we have no trouble distinguishing one from another even when their utterances and thoughts are woven together as if they were all part of the same literary quilt. While the description here of all this may seem heavy and complex, the effect is the opposite. Saramago has his characters spout a lot of philosophically and psychologically insightful thought without ever weighing the narrative down. An example follows. "The frequent reluctance of obvious truths to reveal themselves without first playing hard to get really ought to be the object of deep analysis by experts, who must be out there somewhere, on the different but certainly not opposing natures of the visible and the invisible..." At times, there are direct and indirect references to Plato's parable of the cave. When I read this work in my college days, I thought it's meaning to be that of people mistaking shadows for reality. There may be a great deal more to those few pages of Plato's thought than that, however. Nevertheless, toward the end of Saramago's book, when Cipriano Algor and his family have moved into The Center, the old man locates a secret project located in the basement of the building called The Cave, about which no one will tell him anything. But at the very end of the book, this mystery, too, reveals itself to be quite mundane after all as the book ends with the words: "coming soon, public opening of Plato's Cave, an exclusive attraction, unique in the world, buy your tickets now." Philosophy as the basis for a theme park in the middle of a shopping mall? Anything is possible if we allow the imagination to reign.
That religious and philosophical mysteries are prone to exploitation is no surprise. This ending reminds me of a large poster I saw in Times Square about two years ago. Quite amazingly, at least at first to me (I passed it every day), it said "Trance is the quickest way to enlightenment." Next to these words was a large picture of a man holding a sneaker in his hand. I saw this sign everyday for months while going to and from work. Indeed, there was something mysterious about this, too, although only a fool would have developed meditative concentration on sneakers or tried to do so. Apparently, all levels of mental accomplishment are being brought into every day life, now, including what once seemed like the most abstruse thoughts of philosophers and religious teachers. Why this is so, I cannot say. But if Saramago's The Cave makes a small contribution to this elevation of the level of the collective mind, well, isn't that a remarkable thing for a postmodern philosophical novel to accomplish in this world?