José Saramago
Margaret Jull Coasta,

Cipriano Algor is a potter who lives with his daughter Marta in a small village, presumably in Portugal. She's married to Marçal Gacho, who goes to work as a security guard in the Center --- a Disneyworld octopus-like apartment/pleasure dome in the middle of the nearby city.

Meanwhile, back in the village, in the potter's yard, under the mulberry tree, there is a kiln, and a bench for contemplation, and a dog named Found (because he found himself living with Cipriano and Marta and Marçal one day). There is Isaura Madruga, with whom Cipriano the potter may or may not be in love. He is sixty-four, she almost the same, and he tries hard to believe that they are too old for such stuff.

The dog on occasion speaks to us through the author, acting as his official representative as he watches Isaura Madruga with silent Cipriano, telling us he is "unable to understand what is going on," and there is even a clock on the wall

    that must be asking itself, as it tick-tocks on, what these two people want with time if they don't make some use of it.

This is a story out of magic, not that half-baked "mystical realism" --- whatever that is --- but the old mystics, from Socrates' time, a magic that involves caves, and bodies, clay bodies, seated, with shadows and fires and kilns. As well as your regular dogs that claim not to understand (though we know they do) and clocks with moments ticking along there as they think and move.

Saramago got a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and as far as I am concerned he should have gotten at the same time the Nobel Prize for Psychology and another one, the Wise Prize, for Knowledge of the Workings of the Heart & Soul...

... plus, and in addition, any other prizes lying around, the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Prix Fixe de France and whatever other bookish prizes they have hanging around to give to those who through some sterling ability that you and I will never ever be able to comprehend can take a story and words and characters and twist them around and down inside you with such force that they belong to you ... no ... they become you.

I am now and have for the last few days been not only with crotchety old Cipriano but of him. He and I know his life's business which is now no longer a business. He and I want to love the widow Isaura but (as he says to her) we cannot say to her because he thinks he doesn't have the words (although he does) to prove this.

I am also daughter Marta, who explains to Marçal how her father works:

    All fathers were sons once, many sons become fathers, but some forget what they were and no one can explain to the others what they will become.

I then become Marçal who responds, "That's a bit deep."

Then Marta:

    Oh, I don't understand it myself really, it just came to me, pay no attention. Let's go to bed. All right. They got undressed and lay down. The moment for caresses came back into the room and apologized for having spent so much time outside, I got lost, it said, by way of an excuse, and suddenly, as sometimes happens with moments, it became eternal. A quarter of an hour later, their bodies still entwined, Marta said softly, Marçal, What is it, he asked sleepily, I'm two days late.

§     §     §

You may like me at first have trouble with this one. What do I care for a crabby old potter, I am thinking: a potter who is losing the potting business, the business of his father and grandfather, making things to carry and things one can eat food off of and the like, and then one day the Center where they sell his works says we aren't going to carry your pots any more come and get all your old ones you have two weeks to pick up everything you have here. So Cipriano goes and puts them in his truck and instead of dumping them or taking them home he finds a hollow down near the river near his house and puts them in that dark cool place there in the ground and hopes that centuries from now someone will dig them up and wonder I wonder who made these they might be a treasure. See, I'm even beginning to write like Saramago.

Form and function, function and form. And magic. Saramago doesn't worry about those fake distinctions that most writers fret over --- all those type-setterly representations like open-and-close quotes and paragraphs and italics and breaks. All of The Cave is one big enjambment and at first it drives you mad like Joyce will drive you mad but then it begins to take hold of you, you become part of Saramago-land where description and speech are married to a monument built by a word-magician where the almost peasant-like Marta can speak profundities that work just fine for the reader but she herself isn't too sure ("Oh, I don't understand it myself") then come this other being called "the moment for caresses" which "came back into the room" and apologized for having spent so much time outside --- a moment apologizing! --- and then she tells her husband (another magic revelation) that she is with child.

§     §     §

After being dumped by The Center, Cipriano thinks, maybe I can make some clay dolls, maybe they will take those, so he and sweet Marta his daughter decide to make up six figurines --- an Eskimo, a nurse, a jester, a bearded Assyrian, a mandarin, and a clown --- to sell to the Center and perhaps save the pottery works and then ...

But there I go again, telling you the story, making me feel like one of those dumb reviewers from the Times or the NYRB or the TLS or that awful Publishers Weekly where they spend half the review retelling, and retelling badly, the story that is right there in the book, laid out with all due artistry, shouldn't be summarized because in most cases a worthy writer can do it better than any hack working for the mainstream press. Imagine trying to write a review of Ulysses: there was this young artist in Dublin, who lived with a medical student in a tower just outside of Dublin, and his father was a drunk, and he wandered around the city and then that night he got drunk too and went down to the whorehouse district where he met this kindly older Jew who took him home and they talked for awhile and then he went off and the Jew went to bed with his wife whose name was Molly. See how silly it is?

So I have told you about The Cave but --- as I have done a couple of times before --- I am going to issue the caveat. Which is: don't waste your time with me trying to load up words on the page about the grandeur of this particular novel; just go online or wherever you have to go to get books, access ABA or Powell's or go over to your friendly local bookseller and order it up.

I've never heard of Saramago before but I sure as hell plan to be spending a great deal of time with him in the future. There are a few other writers who come across as equals: perhaps Gabriel Marquez for magic and, for introspection --- Henry James --- but not so serious and convoluted. There's Joyce Carey for wit and singularity of characters, the Latinos Virgil Suárez and Luis Sepulveda for sheer story-telling ability.

But the closest of them all is the great Italian writer Alberto Moravia. I once wrote of his A Woman of Rome "one wonders how a man --- I almost said 'a mere man' --- can penetrate, and penetrate so deeply, into the heart of woman." One, too, wonders how José Saramago can penetrate so deeply into the heart of a man, a woman, a family.

--- Carlos Amantea
Go to a reading from The Cave


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