Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A literary analysis of "The Cave" by Jose Saramago

Originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 7, 2012.

A couple years after winning the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, Portuguese author Jose Saramago published The Cave, a novel about human connection in a time of uncertainty and uprooting. The book was soon translated from Portuguese into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

The plot elements are simple – a rural craftsman is taken advantage of by a large company, a stray dog shows up, a young married woman conceives, financial pressures force the family to move – and so the real impact of the novel lies in its psychological and philosophical explorations. The key to the story is in the emotional connections that characters make with each other tentatively. It's in Saramago's expression of how the dog noses his master's hand, how the girl tells her father she's pregnant.

The title evokes Plato's allegory about the human tendency to be captivated by illusions rather than to see truth directly. The surreal climax that gives the book this title does not occur until the last few pages of the story. Yet the entire book is, in a way, a reflection on the varying illusions contained in ordinary life and thought.

One of Saramago's literary tricks is to make lists of apparent synonyms. In one place, he writes,
"Yes, it is true, that no one ever saw him again, but he left us what was perhaps the best part of himself, the breath, the puff of air, the breeze, the soft wind, the zephyr, the very things that are now gently entering the nostrils of the six clay dolls..."
In another, he writes,
"But I've always understood that the secret of the bee doesn't actually exist, that it's a mystification, a false mystery, an unfinished fable, a tale that might have been but wasn't..."
Some readers are put off by this style. Can't one of the world's greatest writers settle on the proper word to convey his intended meaning? That desire for clarity is one of the very philosophical problems with which Saramago wrestles.

In one passage he explains that it is incoherence, not contradiction, that the human character generally avoids. A person is capable of believing and feeling contradictory things while still maintaining a coherent self-narrative. Saramago's lists of similar but non-identical concepts can be seen as illustrations of this principle. Is it breath or wind that ensouls the dolls? Does this side-by-side contradiction matter, especially as it is the province of metaphor and perception anyway?

Another justification for the lists is given here:

"…every now and then, one still comes across the occasional rare exception in this dull world of repetitions, as the Orphic, Pythagorean, Stoic, and Neoplatonic sages might have called it had they not preferred, with poetic inspiration, to give it the prettier and more sonorous name of the eternal return."
Eternal return is the philosophical idea, famously examined in modern Western philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche, that time is cyclical and everything that has happened before will happen again. Thus when Saramago says that his character "was busily planning ruses, tricks, ploys, stratagems, dodges, and subterfuges," he conveys the sense that this person is connected to every other person who has ever plotted deceit. The reader is not presented with a specific kind of deceit but rather with the vague impression of activities that fall into this category: the Platonic form of deceit. The specific character becomes universal and thereby eternal.

Another interesting feature of Saramago's writing is his representation of dialogue without line breaks or quotation marks. While this makes it difficult to interpret which character is making which comment, it reveals how an argument with another person can also be perceived as an argument with oneself. It shows how our contradictions live and breathe within us. We see how readily we can change our opinions to connect with others.

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