Wednesday, 26 November 2014

José Saramago: The Cave

As everybody knows who’s been following this blog since its beginning, in November I like to celebrate the José Saramago Month; every year around this time I re-read one of his novels. For this occasion I chose The Cave (2000). My archives tell me I first read it in 2006, a prodigious year when I devoured seven more novels by him: I had only discovered him the year before. In this whirlwind of feverish reading, about The Cave I only retained a feeling of disappointment; compared with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and All The Names I got the impression the author had not quite reached the stylistic and imaginative heights of his others novels. But almost a decade later I feel kinder towards it and think there exists a lot to extract from it. In fact I didn’t post this earlier because the more I thought about the novel the longer my notes grew; so far I’ve filled 20 A4-sized pages. Cutting them down to a mere 8 takes a complicated effort of synthesis, which means you won’t read my attempt at proving that The Cave is a remake of Plato’s allegory of the cave via Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

I must begin by referring that The Cave was not ecstatically received when it came out. It was his first novel since receiving the Nobel Prize in 1998, expectations were high and I think there was a general intention, amongst people who don’t cotton much to him, to cut him down to size. Reviews were mixed and negative criticism focused on two different aspects: form and content. Fernando Venâncio, literary critic and author of José Saramago – A Luz e o Sombreado (2001), singled out the novel as an example of what he perceived as regular flaws in Saramago’s novels: lack of interesting themes; bad beginnings and endings that failed to captivate the reader; and a sense that he sometimes gave up on them halfway through. Others were more political in their opinions. Book reviewer Pedro Mexia called it a “requiem for mom and pop business with childish reflections about capital and labour which are not impartial.” True about the partiality, but the omniscient narrator/author admits that he’s writing with “class sympathy.” In 2010 journalist and author Pedro Correia, in his eulogy for Saramago, confessed that “I abandoned [The Cave] halfway through, sick of so many facile attacks on capitalism.” The novel itself is one of the least talked about by Saramago and doesn’t seem destined for posterity like his others. Re-reading it in 2014, however, I consider the novel prescient and I think its poor reception was due to an inability to understand that, instead of being a commentary on the present (in 2000), it was in fact a prophecy about the coming world that few were capable of conceiving at the tail-end of the West’s last era of opulence and just one year before the rise of the modern paranoid, surveillance state.

I know, that’s a lot to weigh on the shoulders of a novel about a potter. What is The Cave about? It’s about the small tragedy of a potter called Cipriano Algor, from whom the Centre, a gigantic shopping mall, refuses to keep on buying his pottery. Goaded on by his daughter, Marta, he starts producing clay dolls which hopefully will interest the Centre. At the same time, Marta’s husband, Marçal Gacho, intern guard t the Centre awaits a promotion to resident guard in order to obtain an apartment inside the Centre, to where he wants to relocate his wife and father-in-law, in order to save them, certain that their pottery days are over. And this, minus a big reveal at the end that ties the novel to Plato’s cave, is the gist of the action. The three guiding lines of the novel, which Saramago discussed in his diary entries dating from September 1997, could be summed up as: critique of consumerism society; critique of the virtualization of reality; and elegy to the evanescent handwork world of his childhood trips to his grandparents’ village. Around the time he was tying up the many strands of influences and relations that would become this novel, he was also writing a weekly article for a magazine called Visão, where as often he was highly critical of what he saw as the failures of modern society. What was he writing about? The centralization of power and money in fewer and fewer hands; the recrudescence of chauvinism in Europe; the dominion of Germany over the European Union; the neoliberal Multilateral Agreement on Investment which has resurfaced in our days under the name of Transatlantic Treaty; the persecution and extermination of Indian tribes within South America nations; “the new colonialism which they call globalization;” and the sexual scandal involving Bill Clinton which distracted people from the more serious scandal involving US cruise missiles totalling a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that led to an estimated death of thousands of Sudanese deprived of medicine, all based on an unproven hunch that the factory had ties to terrorists. With a few changes in names and circumstances, Saramago was writing about our now. The Clinton example contains the novel’s essence: on the one hand we have democracy with its dictatorial behaviour, committing humanitarian crimes without being accountable; on the other hand we have a public opinion only interested in gossip, oblivious to what’s going on around them. Saramago, however, fed on what surrounded him. Like Umberto Eco wrote in his introduction to Saramago’s The Notebook, “it’s everyday writing that inspires works of larger scope, and not otherwise.”

However Saramago doesn’t write fiction in a straight line. He’s a fabulist in love with allegories and parables who works with symbols and archetypes. Those who merely reduced this novel to its superficial themes – capitalism, labour, consumerism – failed to see that he was trying to make sense of the whole of modern society. Furthermore, I think he was trying to start a debate on the now popular crisis of democracy, an aspect that is overlooked in appraisals of this novel, a failure of interpretation which may have inspired him to write a watered-down, more direct version called Seeing. In interviews after 2000 we notice that he’s becoming more and more outspoken about the decline of democratic values in detriment of markets and unelected institutions and organizations that effectively rule and decide, with the aid of elected politicians, who govern against their electors’ wishes. “How can we talk about democracy in a world where governments don’t rule?” he asked in 2003. In his pessimism, he believed that “we can change a government and place another one in its place,” but “what we can’t do is climb upstairs, where power effectively resides.” This vague power is obviously big capital, and so intangible it is that many doubt its existence and gullibly think democracy is the rule of the people, and so don’t think there’s any need to reflect about it. “There are symposia, colloquies, conferences about everything except about what democracy is. And it’s direly urgent to have a great debate about that theme.” But a decade ago it did not seem as urgent as it does now. Saramago tried to initiate that debate with The Cave, particularly via the invention of the Centre, but reviews failed to get past attacks on capitalism and panegyrics to potters. However I think the Centre is a symbol for everything democracy, according to Saramago, had become at the end of the millennium, not to mention the novel’s protagonist – and one of the most fascinating, original, mysterious and multi-faceted ever imagined by Saramago – since it’s this colossal feat of architecture that dominates the narrative, and Cipriano Algor, on whom so much attention is focused, is no more than window-dressing, a functional guide for the reader leading him through an idea. The notion that a shopping mall may be a protagonist is not as preposterous as it seems. William H. Gass once wrote that character “first of all, is the noise of his name, and all the sounds and rhythms that proceed from him.” A few lines later he refines: “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached.” And exemplifies more ahead: “Mountains are characters in Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, so is a ravine, a movie, mescal, or a boxing poster.” This certainly opens the gates to allowing anything to become a character, but surely some readers have also read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities thinking the cities described were more interesting than Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. To say nothing of The Aleph, the Library of Babel or the Book of Sand, which are far more interesting concept-characters than the vague and bland first-person narrators who describe them in Jorge Luis Borges’ short-stories. Saramago, as you may know, was a huge fan of Borges and even considered himself a failed essayist who turned to novels because he couldn’t write essays. And that’s why so many critics notice in hi fiction attempt to mix novel and essay writing. With all of this in mind, it’s a lot easier to accept the Centre as The Cave’s protagonist.

Whoever knows Saramago’s fiction – poetry, short-stories, novels – inside out is aware of the repeated conflict between confinement and escape. Let’s just remember the two novels that preceded The Cave: in All The Names (1997) we have Mr. José, a clerk in the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths, a vast space that contains files on everybody who was ever born; he works diligently and by a strict routine, without much of a personal life, until the day a serendipity puts him in pursuit of an unknown woman that starts consuming more and more of his time away from the registry. In Blindness (1995) a global epidemic turns the world population blind; the first patients are quarantined in a hospital to fend for themselves; when society breaks down they manage to escape, but only into the greater, more dangerous trap that the world has become. The Cave, a sort of negative of these opposing themes, has the Centre, the economic lung of a city, a miraculous place where thousands wish to live in, in opposition to a small group of residents who intend to abandon this terrestrial Xanadu, at one point even described as “paradise’s elevator.” What’s unique in this novel is that confinement is the deliberate and free desire of people. In Saramago’s other novels oppression is inflicted through force by abstract entities: the Catholic Church, Salazar, the land-owners in Raised from the Ground, bizarre supernatural phenomena, Death and even God, always a bad guy in his novels, are the agents that determine the characters’ choices and freedom. However, the Centre is built by ordinary men for other ordinary men, without visible obligations and intimidation; many of its residents even describe it as a utopia where man is free to realize all his wishes. And yet this benevolent shopping mall may be Saramago’s most terrible, merciless and tyrannical invention.

As a being of many aspects, it’s not easy to pinpoint everything about the Centre. Saramago, who is not prone to describe landscape a lot, spends several pages building a detailed geography around it. We know that after Cipriano Algor leaves his village in a lorry there’s a stretch of land called the Green Belt, although there’s no green in its vast barrenness, this colour deduced solely from the greyish greenhouses that grow vegetables; “machines for making vegetables,” the potter calls them. Next there’s an Industrial Belt full of factories that spit soot and smoke that have turned the landscape black and sickly. The potter has difficulty finding assistants because everyone prefers to work in these factories. Ahead there’s a shantytown, and next what the narrator called a no man’s land, a name that alludes immediately to conflict and war: it’s a piece of land that used to harbour the shantytown that was pushed back to its current location, leaving debris and wreckage. Finally he enters the city and reaches the Centre. The lorry drive is by means easy: the text mentions many police restrictions and a general sense of surveillance. Trucks full of food are regularly looted by the shantytown’s inhabitants: the traffic of merchandise is “continuous throughout the night,” this in an impoverished region where the rich and the poor rub shoulders. The Centre, where everything flows to, is surrounded by misery. Inevitably this unbalance generates social tensions that require the swift repression of law enforcement agencies. One gets the impression the Centre exerts tremendous influence on the police. The city, impelled by the Centre’s incessant growth, also grows, pushing away the shantytown. The city, with the Centre at its head, will end up appropriating everything. Like Cipriano Algor says, “The Centre is inside the city, but is bigger than the city.” Inside this technological wonder we find apartments, shops, fun centre, cinemas, cutting-edge health clinics, even a cemetery and crematorium. The Centre doesn’t accept pets, but the tenants live very well without them since they have virtual aquariums, “without fish that smell like fish and water that needs changing. Inside fifty specimens of ten different species swim graciously, which, in order not to die, have to be fed as if they were living beings.” This fascination with virtual reality is extended to the actual apartments and pastimes. Many of the Centre’s apartments only have windows looking in, but “Rest assured that many people prefer them, they think the view there is infinitely more pleasant, varied and amusing, whereas on the other side it’s always the same roofs and the same sky,” says Marçal Gacho, who praises it throughout the novel. For those people who don’t want to look at the banality of the world, the Centre provides a gamut of stimuli, including its own TV channel and rain simulators: there are even those who, ignorant of natural phenomena and seasonal changes, get addicted to getting wet under fake rain. When he consider all these elements: scarcity, hunger and repression for the many; opulence, leisure and safety for a few; a fortress besieged by enemies who, like hordes of mutants, prey on and fight each other for resources as if the world had experienced a cataclysm, one has to ask a few questions: is Saramago writing science fiction? Does The Cave take place in the future? And is it a dystopia he’s crafting? Indeed some of these elements are basic tropes of the genre. It’s not the first time he imagines one; his 1975 prose poem, O Ano de 1993, is effectively allegorical science fiction, in his Small Memoirs he wrote about his childhood love for science fiction movies, and several have mentioned the similarities between Blindness and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Evidence spread throughout the novel suggests that Saramago had in mind a sort of police state in the hands of big capital, another popular scenario in science fiction.

But like I wrote earlier, Saramago is a fabulist and his twisted language is just a means to hide what to him is familiar, right under our noses, if only we paid attention to warnings, from the past and the present. There’s no doubt to me that the Centre also represents the author’s own experience in growing up in a dictatorship. Inside the Centre it’s the rule of “the guards, the detectors, the video cameras, and the rest of the meddlesome paraphernalia.” Its interior exudes vigilance and control. Marçal is neither policeman nor soldier, but he’s “close, on the border,” according to Cipriano, an independent, sceptical, curious man who prizes his freedom. When he goes live in the Centre he becomes interested in secret excavations under the Centre: having nothing to do in that infinity of artificial entertainments, he tries to discover more probing the doors that give access to the site. A guard catches him, takes his finger print, confirms that he’s a resident, sends him away and then calls Marçal to follow him because “people have to learn not to be curious, to take no notice of things, to keep their noses out of things.” This may be a reference to Salazar’s dictatorship, which tried to produce a similar mentality. A subtler reference has to do with how suicide is hidden in the Centre: for the potter the Centre’s windows can’t be opened because “people can commit suicide, if they want, but not from falling off 100 meters onto the street, it’s a despair that is too showy and inspires morbid curiosity in passers-by, who immediately want to know why.” Protecting apparent terrestrial paradises from the impurity of suicide, pretending everything is fine takes us to a newspaper article the author wrote in the 1960s, “The Pistol’s Crime,” where he satirised censorship restrictions that stopped journalists from writing about suicide cases directly, forcing them to conjure insipid euphemisms. But this dictatorial past he invokes is becoming the new normal in contemporary democracies. Outside the Centre we follow the activity of the police state in the way the army is called upon to disperse the rabble living in the shantytown; one day, as he heads towards the city, Cipriano drives past a burning truck, the first time that happens, and witnesses soldiers carrying out the raids that used be to entrusted to the police. He immediately suspects that it was the authorities that burned down the truck to have a motive to crack down on them. Who’d suspect that just one year after being published, far from sounding paranoid, the novel would become prophetic about the militarization of the quotidian in Western democracies, and about the construction of a supra-national police state with a nigh omniscient power of vigilance, justifying itself on vague attacks on freedom and security, and with the collusion of the population, out of indifference, fear and inertia? I don’t have doubts that paradoxically the Centre represents totalitarianism as it does democracy.

But let’s look at more angles. We can also interpret the Centre as the personification of capitalism. This is most poignantly expressed in the lack of direction Cipriano senses after the Centre stops buying his pottery, replaced by “plastic pottery,” a remarkable oxymoron. Informed while he’s on the underground queue to unload his cargo, he turns to the other drivers looking for “class solidarity,” meeting only with indifference and silence. Everybody the Centre touches experiences this dehumanization and uprootedness. According to Cipriano, Marçal used to be an “affable and nice boy” who became a guard, a crime for the autonomous potter, his own boss, who risks everything in producing pottery without knowing if he can sell it. As for a sales department subchief, he’s described as a “social malcontent,” whereas another is superficially kind and polite, but only insofar as that allows him to serve the Centre and its customers better, like a machine programmed solely for that end, without possessing genuine empathy. Cipriano, by his turn, is ashamed of living off his son-in-law and not off his own work, and starts showing the typical symptoms of depression: lack of hunger, anemia, low self-esteem, tiredness. The first night after the contract ends he falls asleep in the sofa and wakes up complaining, “It would have been better if I hadn’t waken up” because “while I was asleep I was a potter with work.” In the past someone always needed jars and jugs, now he realizes he’s no longer necessary. Marta tries to conform to market logic and starts talking business lingo as if that could help her; so she has an idea: instead of producing pottery they don’t know if anyone needs, they’ll sketch a few ideas for clay dolls and present the “project” to the sales department chief, “that’s how they say it in business and executive language,” she says, thinking they have better chances if they play according to the market’s rules. Of course even this shred of illusion is lost soon enough. And it’s telling that they produce clay dolls: their utensils used to have an intrinsic value because of their usefulness to people; now they’re mere trinkets in a world of fashions and trends, where people buy things out of leisure even if they don’t need them. And for that the Centre has at its disposals the art of marketing, which the novel defines as “creating and impelling in the customer enough stimuli and suggestions in order for the values of use to progressively rise in their estimation, a step soon followed in no time by the rise of the exchange values, imposed by the shrewdness of the producer on a buyer from whom was removed little by little, subtly, the inner defences resulting from awareness of his own personality, those which before, if an intact before ever existed, provided him, although precariously, a certain possibility of resistance and self-control.” To say that the customer chooses with his wallet and that capitalism gives people the power of choice is a simplistic motto, when we consider that companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars in order to perfect techniques, learned from psychology, biology and neuroscience, to manipulate people into spends hundreds of billions of dollars.

Marketing has to do with creating and sustaining leisure and spending habits, prolonging an adolescent phase well past what used to be called the adult age, and opening new niche markets that keep consumers happy and satisfied throughout life. In that sense we can also say that the Centre is a symbol of modern hedonism. The Centre exists to give pleasure to man reduced to a mere consumer of sensual stimuli. We only have to read the countless mottos spreads across its walls, some in all caps like LIFE SAFELY, LIVE IN THE CENTER; YOU’RE OUR BEST CLIENT, BUT PLEASE DON’T SAY TO YOUR NEIGHBOUR; others more modest like: Be bold, dream; Have the boldness to dream; We think about you all the time, it’s time to think about us; Bring your friends as long as they buy; With us you’ll never want to be anything else. Boldness, dreaming, a sense of self-realization, success – all the key-words in marketing. We could add others like originality and individuality, marketing loves to praise people’s individuality. By themselves they’re not problematic since men need to dream and to be bold to accomplish their wishes, but they become a problem when they’re nothing but soundbytes used to sell cars, clothes, cell phones and beverages. Far from becoming original or individual beings, people are invited to disappear into an amorphous mass of collective pleasures, dreaming and daring only insofar as marketing allows them to, forging an identity by acquiring a product that 20 million others are being told to acquire. Far from individuality, marketing fosters a sense of brand loyalty and subservience. When Cipriano tries one of the rain simulators he doesn’t get what’s so amazing about it; but a man tells him, “I feel sorry for you, you’ll never understand,” one imagines with the smug tone of those who smirk at someone who doesn’t understand the hype behind the new iPhone; they can’t understand, they’re not part of the Apple tribe.

The rain simulator takes us to another dimension of the Centre: the expansion of virtual reality in modern society. This by now is more than clear to us. And yet in 1997 the internet wasn’t yet such a big deal and people seemed more grounded on the physical world. But I remember how part of my adolescence lived through that asinine Japanese trend that swept through the world in the late ‘90s: the infamous and moronic Tamagochi. I don’t know if you remember these digital egg-shaped pets that you had to feed with binary codes or else they died, and which grew increasingly more demanding, to the point you got fed up with them and threw them out of windows? Around the time the first batch arrived in Portugal Saramago was in the preliminary stages of the book; I don’t know if there was any influence, but it’s certainly curious that the Centre provides digital pets. There are no cats and dogs, only the aforementioned virtual aquariums: fake fish fed and cared for while humans starved in the shantytown nearby the Centre. The criticism is more than obvious. The consequences of this immersion into the virtual are precisely the erosion of emotional ties, the distancing of the Other, the loss of capacity for empathy. I don’t know if Saramago was aware of the ridiculous Tamagochi, be as it may the Centre prefigures modernity’s accelerating march into voluntary virtual reality: people living parallel lives in Second Life; people mediating their connections via Facebook; a fear of silence for which the incessant tinkering with the cell phone is the cure. In 2010 CNN reported that Avatar watchers were developing depression and suicidal thoughts because they wanted to prolong the feeling of living in Pandora, with its fluorescent neon lights and blue Na’vi. Why should this shock us anymore? The society of spectacle that demonstrated that someone can always supplant somebody else’s former inanity: we’re all aware that we’re actors in movies about ourselves, and we get more hits the sillier the content becomes; self-degradation has become the only form of attention. After a century fighting for the right to privacy, we’re now prepared to throw it away if it gets in the way of ours being a popular Youtube video. The super-surveillance state we live in wouldn’t have met so little resistance from citizens without this new mental development reassuring them that it’s cool to be filmed 24/7.

The Centre also behaves like a two-faced deity: the one serving capitalism and the one serving hedonism. The Centre, in its role as benevolent god, spreads the myth of the free market, wherein everyone can triumph. Its apostles even offer Cipriano a second choice, for the sales department chief explains that “I don’t want people to say that the Centre didn’t give you a last chance.” The language is mellifluous but also shows how for the Centre Cipriano is guilty of some crime, an error, he’s in need of redemption, he’s screwed up. Under the capitalist market, you fail because you deserved to fail, because you were lazy, didn’t do and work enough, and there’s nothing worse than a failure, after all a person stops being human when he stops being productive. “That’s what we are for them, zero,” says the unemployed potter. Other characters are aware of the Centre’s role as Judge: “The Centre is not a tribunal,” says Cipriano, “You’re wrong, it is a tribunal, and I don’t know a more implacable one,” explains the sales department chief. But the Centre is like the Judeo-Christian God, depending on the Gospel you read, it punishes as much as it blesses, and so it also “participates in the nature of the divine” and its apostles brag that it has given “a new meaning to millions and millions of people who were going about unhappy, frustrated, helpless.” The Centre offers ways of being happy enough to fill a whole lifetime, “even if a person was born in the Centre and never left to the exterior world.” One gets the impression people are even luckier if they are born in the Centre and never leave it, protecting their impressions from the impure outer world.

Very well, so the Centre is totalitarianism, is capitalism, is consumer society, is society of spectacle, is the frantic search for pleasure, is the virtual world, is a dystopia, is God. There’s only hypothesis left that encompasses all others: the Centre is the modern Western democracy. When Seeing came out, in 2004, some critics accused Saramago of attacking democracy. The author defended the blank ballot, opposed elections, denied citizens the hard-won right to choose their rulers, the man even wanted to throw down the system, no doubt nostalgic of his beloved Soviet Union. I think they were wrong; the novel was far from communist, in fact the Communist Party had but a vestigial role in it. I think Seeing shows instead Saramago’s moving away from faith in parties and proposing anarchism. The novel inverts what happens in Blindness: instead of the world imploding in chaos and mass murder, we see a besieged capital turning into a self-sustainable community where everybody helps each other, barely noticing that they’re isolated from the rest of the country, much to the chagrin of the democratic government, which intended to punish the poorly-behaved city for its radical electoral practices. Pointlessly it tries to find a scapegoat, some sinister force working in the shadows manipulating people. The blank ballot itself demonstrates the total lack of faith in any party. This apolitical community is a wonderful fantasy, like the utopias dreamt by Fourier, Kropotkin and Makhno, because it takes a simplistic view to the many problems common human nature would create under such circumstances. But then this wouldn’t be a José Saramago if it didn’t embellish mankind a bit in detriment of psychological realism.

No, I believe the real attack against democracy took place in The Cave. Here we have a community where we can’t really talk about persecutions, violence, restrictions. People are free and content, they accept the world they were born into and toil without suspecting what’s going on outside it, or without disturbing themselves when they discover. As we’ve seen, the Centre exterminates curiosity and promotes egotism. It’s true the Centre is surrounded by shantytowns, which it constantly expels farther and farther, but that’s the nature of functional democracies. Democracy was, is and will continue to be a business built on a lot of exploitation. Of course like the inhabitants of the Centre, most prefer to turn a blind eye to democracies doing business with totalitarian regimes like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, to European countries selling weapons to tyrants who allegedly are against Europe’s values and way of life, to America’s support of dictatorships that control oil fields. Nobody even truly cares when a democracy, in order to make life easier for a company, subsidizes a military coup in a democracy, like it happened in South America countless times in the 20th century, like it happened in Iran in 1954, when a democratic government was overthrown by an Anglo-American plot to put a Shah in power who was receptive to foreign oil business, which instigated the 1979 Ayatollah Revolution, which has kept the region in tumult ever since. Democracies don’t even like democracies; democracies love democracy inside borders, but resent it outside them. Like in the Centre, democracy fosters tribal identities and instils a sense of superiority in relation to others, while at the same time, through marketing, mass media, the entertainment industry and public relation agencies, it eliminates critical faculties necessary to understand at what price democracy was achieved, or if it was achieved at all.

A plentiful land surrounded by misery – until a decade ago that could be a definition of democracy; but since 2001 it’s become hard to write this without laughter, not now that the economic crisis has spread to Europe and America while the elites of Asian and African dictatorships enjoy fortune. It’s hard to remember how presumptous people used to be 15 years ago. Back then some thought we were the last men at the end of history, with that typical arrogance that defines so much of the previous century, obese with moral and scientific certainty. Like the social sciences messiahs of the 18th century, man at the end of the 20th thought he had discovered the formula for the perfect society. Cynicism was not yet a generalized trait, there was still hope and faith in leaders, the future still seemed possible. And now there’s a general feeling that we’re at the end of an era but we can’t yet glimpse what’s coming next because we were never encouraged to do so; we were always sold the idea that this was the best we could aspire to; it was either democracy or falling off a precipice. How could anyone ambition anything better? “You should know that for the Centre there’s only one path; the one that leads from the Centre to the Centre, I work there, I know what I’m talking about,” says the apostle Marçal. Pundits working for the counterfeit democracy we have nowadays say the same under different words, they especially love to insist that, bad as things may be, everything is fine with this system that we built in the last decades. So the economy is constantly unstable? So non-stop scandals demonstrate that the political class is filled with criminals? So economic monopolies are growing? So democracy is becoming a bit more authoritarian than it used to be? So there’s more unemployment? So people just want to survive and be thankful for making it through another day? Everything is fine.

The Cave was Saramago’s way of disagreeing. He thought it was time to have a frank debate about what democracy should be and what it has become. To say that he was a lonely voice would be a mistake. Although it’s fiction, The Cave belongs to a growing literature that includes Noam Chomsky’s Profits over People, Naomi Klein’s No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, John Pilger’s The New Rulers of the World, Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated, Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion, Daniel Innerarity’s La Sociedad Invisible, James Meek’s Private Island, Peter Oborne’s The Triumph of the Political Class, Alfio Mastropaolo’s La democrazia è una causa persa?, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Indeed amidst all this non-fiction Saramago’s novel seems out of place, but I’d include also William Gaddis’ 2002 Agape Agape into the mix, for its many points of contact. People have been discussing democracy and diagnosing its many ills for quite some time now, it’s just that the discussion has become more vital as of late. And for that reason I don’t think The Cave is going to be forgotten after all. Far from being a minor novel, I’m now willing to concede it may be one of his best and most lucid. It was ahead of its time and was misunderstood. Now is the right time to read it; the world has remade itself in its image, making sure it’ll continue to resonate with readers so long as this era of crisis, chaos and confusion lasts.


  1. Superb commentary as always Miguel.

    Indeed there are deep themes underlying the obvious themes in Saramago. I love this as I am always looking for universality in fiction.

    The Centre actually sounds like it is a great literary creation.

    I have not read this one but I would like to. Your point that this might be one of Saramago's best has gotten my attention!