"The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn't understand us, and we don't understand him." And that's putting it mildly, because Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago (1922-2010) goes on to hold the lord accountable for out-and-out wickedness and pacts with the devil. Cain provides Saramago with his final stage for haranguing the human race for all its selfish cruelty. When he's not harrowing you with the grim statistics of the lord's vengeance, he's entertaining you with his very dry wit, taking some delightful comic jabs at biblical tradition in his smart, ironic retelling of Genesis.

But Saramago has more than entertainment on his mind. He also has an agenda, as defiantly iconoclastic as anything in his other novels, to zero in on the unexplored bloodthirsty wickedness of the god of Genesis. Saramago turns Cain, the first murderer, into a measuring stick for the rest of the savagery and slaughter in the Old Testament. Fleeing Eden after his crime, he hurtles through biblical time, witnessing the never-ending Grand Guignol of human atrocities.

Saramago's wisdom can be gentle and ironic, a droll acceptance of human nature, and like a crotchety old man, he can scold: "the lord did a very bad job of bringing these people up." The legendary Lilith, reigning from her palace, reputedly a witch who can drive men crazy with her spells, is the one consistently pleasant, affectionate character on Cain's travels through time, and Cain's years as her paramour are his happiest.

He's there for the tower of Babel. He's there for the walls of Jericho. Cain acquires a "somber pessimism... during his successive journeys into the horrors of past and future." That's the only motive Saramago provides for the novel's extremely dark ending, in which Cain begins reducing the human population aboard the ark, one by one, hurling Noah's sons and their wives into the sea. Still, Cain and god go on arguing and bickering as the story draws to a close. It's easy to imagine Saramago now giving the lord a good piece of his mind in person. --Nick DiMartino, Nick's Picks, University Book Store, Seattle

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