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José Saramago: A caverna (The Cave)

Most of Saramago’s later novels take an illogical proposition – everyone going blind or no-one dying, for example – and then tell the story as though it is a quite logical proposition. This novel is different, perhaps, in some ways, more akin to A Viagem do Elefante (The Elephant’s Journey), where we have a straightforward story with the occasional oddity appearing. In this one, apart from a thinking (but not talking) dog, the only oddity occurs near the end of the book and even then it is not really very odd. Much of the book is a fairly conventional narrative with only a very slight Kafkaesque hint of somewhat (but not too much) state control at the expense of the individual.

The story concerns the sixty-four year old Cipriano Algor, a widower and a professional but freelance potter, his daughter, Marta and her husband Marçal Gacho, a security guard. They live out in the country, where Cipriano, aided by his daughter, makes old-fashioned ceramic crockery, which he regularly delivers to the Centre, a large complex in the (unnamed) city, consisting of accommodation, shopping and offices. Marçal works a ten day shift as a security guard in the Centre, with his father-in-law driving him in and then picking him up to take him home for his four days off. This seems to work very well, particularly as father-in-law and son-in-law get on very well, with Marçal not being very fond of his parents. However, three things are about to change their way of life. Firstly, it seems likely that Marçal will get a promotion which will make him a residential guard, which means he will have a flat in the Centre where his wife and family (i.e. father-in-law) can live. It will make life easier for Marçal and mean more money but will, of course, will mean that Cipriano cannot continue his profession. The second change is that the Centre suddenly informs Cipriano that there is no more demand for his pottery and they will not buy any more. Finally, Marta realises that she is pregnant.

There is a lot of waiting to see if Marçal will get his promotion and he does not do so till near the end of the novel. Meanwhile, Marta comes up with the idea of making painted figurines and seeing if the Centre will buy them. Much of the novel is taken up with discussions and plans for this. To their surprise, the Centre is happy to consider the figurines, resulting in a lot of activity by Cipriano and Marta, aided by Marçal on his days off. There are two additions to their lives. Firstly, they discover a dog in the kennel of their late dog (whom they never replaced). When they cannot find his owner, they keep him and christen him Found. They are soon all three doting on him. Secondly, Cipriano meets Isaura, a widow, younger than him, and he is soon clearly interested in her and she in him. All changes, however, when they do finally move into the Centre.

In the Centre, Cipriano entertains himself by wandering around and discovering the attractions of the Centre. Saramago mildly mocks it, with its attempts at imitating the outside world and nature. There is apparently excavation going on underground to build new cold storage units. However, when the cave of the title is found and Marçal is set to guard it and Cipriano decides to investigate it, their life changes again. But, despite the well-meaning anti-technology, anti-state message Saramago gives us, this novel is something of a disappointment. Yes, the state we see is slightly sinister and is encroaching but it certainly is not as frightening or as threatening as the state we have seen in books from Kafka to Orwell and many others in the past hundred or so years. That might be Saramago’s point – it is subtle but is slowly creeping up on us – but somehow that does make not for great literature and he himself has done it better and will do it better in his later novels.

Publishing history

First published 2000 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 2002 by Harvill
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa