Monday, August 5, 2019

The Cave by José Saramago

Equal parts captivating and frustrating
Portuguese author José Saramago won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. His novel The Cave was published in 2000. The book’s protagonist, Cipriano Algor, is an artisan potter who manufactures earthenware dishes in his home workshop and kiln. He lives on the outskirts of an unnamed metropolis and makes periodic trips into the city to deliver his products to his sole customer: the Center. Imagine if Amazon, the company who sells everything, had a skyscraping retail complex that dwarfed the Mall of America, complete with housing for its most valued employees, and you have the corporate nightmare that is the Center. Cipriano Algor lives with his daughter Marta and her husband Marçal, who works as a security guard at the Center. While making a delivery, the potter is informed that the Center will no longer be buying his wares, as they have decided to sell a factory-made product in its place. This unexpected development suddenly leaves Cipriano Algor without a livelihood, forced to face the possibility of having to close his workshop and leave his home.

The story of The Cave is sufficiently interesting to keep the reader involved, but Saramago tells it at a snail’s pace. He begins with an overly detailed description of the potter’s delivery route to the Center. Then a stray dog shows up and joins the family, an event which is dwelt upon for quite some time. It feels as if the story takes forever to get started, when all the while it is slowly growing on you. The reader becomes very fondly engaged in the family dynamic between the three main characters, and the details of the ceramic processes and techniques are surprisingly fascinating. Despite the slow-moving plot, the prose often takes the form of rapid-fire dialogue between the family members in discussions that are often overly protracted and repetitive. There is also quite a bit of interior dialogue, and Saramago very insightfully relates the thought processes of his characters, even the dog. The book has no chapters, and the prose is written in long run-on sentences devoid of punctuation but for commas, forming paragraphs that go on for multiple pages. Dialogue is presented the same way, without quotation marks and with only commas to separate one character’s speech from another. These stylistic choices make for an annoying lack of clarity at times, but they do serve to speed up the reading pace.

For much of the book’s length, the reader finds himself wondering why Saramago chose to title this novel The Cave. About halfway through the book, a cave is briefly mentioned, but it hardly seems worthy of being the novel’s namesake. At some point I began to suspect that perhaps the title might end up being a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave (from The Republic), and sure enough, eventually that turned out to be the case, and in a very heavy-handed way. After having spent so much time wading through long, circuitous conversations, waiting to find out what the novel is actually about, the climax is disappointingly vague and forced, a metaphor taken too far and too literally. If you are not familiar with Plato’s allegory, then you’d better read up on it, or you will not have a clue as to the point of the novel.

Overall the merits of The Cave outweigh its faults. I quite enjoyed the relationships between the family members (including the dog), and Saramago’s depictions of the Center amount to a beautifully executed dystopian vision of corpocracy that approaches the level of genius in its balance of satire and foreboding. The Cave is not Saramago’s best-known novel (that would be Blindness) and it probably isn’t his best novel, but it is satisfying enough to make me want to read more of his work.
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