"The Cave" by Jose Saramago

An unassuming potter faces off against the Center, an all-encompassing commercial monolith with a dark secret, in this futuristic tale from a Nobel laureate.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published December 5, 2002 11:05PM (EST)

"We invent a sort of reality for our own sake," 1998 Nobel laureate José Saramago told Book magazine in a recent interview. "We think that this so-called reality we invent is not only the only reality that exists, but the only reality that we want." This elliptical pronouncement, oracular and somewhat forbidding in tone, slippery in meaning and ripe for all sorts of philosophical and political interpretations, could serve as an epigraph for Saramago's intriguing and lively new novel.

Still, although it's accurate to describe "The Cave" as a parable of late capitalism, suggestive of George Orwell and Philip K. Dick, one that argues we are enslaved by our limited vision of reality and urges us to overthrow it, it's also wise not to interpret the Portuguese master too narrowly. Saramago's work is more about his graceful weave of language, characters and ideas, his courtly first-person-plural voice with its digressions and soliloquies on the nature of storytelling or the contradictions of parenthood or the way dogs observe human beings, than about the final pattern his books assume.

Despite its apparent setting in a grim near-term future of ecological catastrophe and shopping-mall totalitarianism, "The Cave" vastly more cheerful than the Kafkaesque nightmares of "Blindness" and "All the Names," Saramago's previous two novels. If it's not quite up to the heartbreaking lyricism and historical sweep of "The History of the Siege of Lisbon," arguably the author's masterpiece, it has some of the same devotion to improbable romance. Rather than a dark fable, this is a classic story of a simple family's pluck and resilience, worthy of a Depression-era musical comedy.

Cipriano Algor, a widowed, 60ish village potter, is being driven out of business by a creepy, fast-spreading commercial monolith called the Center, which is eating the heart out of a neighboring metropolis. To add insult to injury, his daughter Marta and son-in-law Marçal expect him, at least at first, to give up the pottery and the village (and Isaura, a neighboring widow to whom Cipriano may yet work up the courage to confess his affection) and move with them to the Center, where Marçal works as a security guard.

On this archetypal David-vs.-Goliath framework, Saramago drapes the distinctive flow of his prose, what you might call his 19th century postmodernism, with its run-on paragraphs of unpunctuated dialogue, its extended asides, its frequent direct address to the reader. In one scene, as Cipriano and Isaura sit nervously together, not quite ready to declare their love for each other, he offers a brief explanation of his own literary method: "We could and should violate the orderly logic and discipline of the story, but we must never ever violate what constitutes the exclusive and essential character of a person, that is, his personality, his way of being, his own, unmistakable nature. A character can be full of contradictions, but never incoherent, and if we insist on this point it is because, contrary to what dictionaries may say, incoherence and contradiction are not synonymous."

He lives by that creed, too. Off the page, Saramago is an unreconstructed Marxist whose politics have gotten him in hot water (most recently for his imprudent remarks comparing the Israeli government to that of Nazi Germany). But in his work he's basically a big softie. At first you wonder whether the author will be tempted to make Marçal, the slightly officious security-guard son-in-law, into the story's buffoonish villain. Not for a second; while Marçal is always scrupulously respectful of Cipriano and Marta's delightfully rendered father-daughter byplay, his own deepening affection for his father-in-law leads this low-level functionary to heroism when the occasion demands.

For almost any reader of "The Cave," though, its least resistible character is the dog named Found (so called because after his arrival at the Algor household he is no longer lost). As Saramago makes clear, Found is no less nuanced a character than Cipriano, Marta and Marçal, although his brain may be smaller and his language skills more limited. The canine conception of belonging to a family -- and perhaps the author's as well -- is "of something dangerously complex and, so to speak, full of slippery meanings, a whole made up of parts in which each individual is, simultaneously, both one of the parts and the whole of which he is a part."

When Found sees Marta crying at the news that the Center will no longer purchase Cipriano's crockery, he has no "clear, definitive, formed opinions on the importance or meaning of tears in the human being." Considering, however, "that these liquid humors are frequently manifest in the strange soup of sentiment, reason and cruelty of which the said human being is made, he thought it might not be such a very grave mistake to go over to his weeping mistress and gently place his head on her knees." Marta loves him from that moment forward, and so of course do we.

There is plenty of allegorical freight in "The Cave" as well. Cipriano and Marta's scheme to save the pottery involves the creation of a line of clay figurines, which, as Saramago observes in his extended disquisitions on the lore and craft of the kiln, aligns them with the creative method of the Judeo-Christian God (among other deities). The Center, an ever expanding blob of theme park, mall, condo complex and police state, seems itself intent on devouring that God, along with the family, the government and the commercial sphere.

At least officially, it's a cryptic "X-Files" type of discovery deep beneath the Center (to which the book's title refers) that drives the Algor family to rebel against the version of reality their society has offered them. But it isn't Saramago's political pessimism that makes him a great novelist, although one may well share it. It's his profligate interest in life, his storyteller's joy with words, his understanding that the realms of experience and ideas need not be separate, his belief in the possibility of finding love and changing your life at any age, his lyricism on such subjects as food and sleep, his undiluted affection for all his characters. Bipedal or otherwise.

Our next pick: A scheming wannabe novelist urges her best friend toward disaster in her quest for juicy material

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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