José Saramago's "The Cave"
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Sun Dec 1 08:13:51 MST 2002
BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'THE CAVE'
Capitalism as Stifling as Stalinist Communism
By RICHARD EDER
By José Saramago.
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
307 pp. New York: Harcourt. $25.
The Center is vast: a multistoried shopping mall whose catalog runs to 55
volumes of 1,500 pages each, an entertainment complex offering Disneyland
versions of virtual reality, and apartments, a hospital, a crematory and
administrative headquarters. It is a city imprisoned in a building, and
each year it expands, threatening to engross the rest of the city, the
suburbs, the countryside.
In José Saramago's nightmare vision, the Western world is a commercial
anaconda devouring life and substituting itself in life's place. The slogan
displayed on the giant billboards is neo-Orwellian: "We would sell you
everything you need, but we would prefer you to need what we have to sell."
This is capitalist instead of Stalinist mind control, enforced by its easy
allure and reinforced by security guards and cameras.
Other novels by Mr. Saramago, a Portuguese writer who is (neither
incidentally nor constrictingly) a Communist, create a dehumanizing
institution as their target. In "Blindness" it was the fetid prison, worthy
of Hieronymus Bosch, in which the growing ranks of a country's blind
eventually the entire population were confined. In "All the Names" it was
the swelling Registry of the Dead; in "The History of the Siege of Lisbon,"
the tyranny of official history; in "The Stone Raft," the smug prosperity
of a unified Europe.
It was not just these balefully inflected situations that earned Mr.
Saramago the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. It was also the delicate and
outrageous humanity (a thing much harder to devise) of a handful of
characters who set themselves up in pacific and explosive resistance.
Most of all, perhaps, it was the unique artistic means used to configure
their flowering quixotry: suitcase sentences enclosed in packing-crate
paragraphs, the contents of each in ruminative and comic argument among
themselves and with the author, whose whims are as much to be questioned as
theirs, and who argues right back.
Mr. Saramago's resisters are as appealing in "The Cave" as in his previous
books; so are the thoughts and arguments they paddle out like ornamented
battle canoes, frail and foundering. The story itself is skimpier, lacking
the necrotic garishness of the prison in "Blindness" or the reversal of
history, when a proofreader in "Lisbon" inserts "not" into a text, or in
"The Raft," when the Iberian peninsula suddenly breaks off and floats away
"The Cave" presents an old potter, Cipriano Algor, who finds himself in a
struggle with the Center. He had been delivering a cargo of clay pots each
month; suddenly the purchasing director cuts the order in half, citing lack
of demand, then cancels it entirely and orders Cipriano to remove the
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