A Portrait of Contemporary Capitalist Civilization : José Saramago’s The Cave

mardi 13 décembre 2011, par Koula Mellos

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José Saramago’s The Cave [1] (Caverna) is a realistic portrayal of life in the contemporary world of advanced capitalist post-modernity that bears alarmingly close resemblance to the life of the chained prisoners in Plato’s allegory, to which the title alludes. The allusion is not only figurative ; it is literal as well. Underground excavations of a modern high-rise housing and commercial complex actually uncover a number of human corpses chained to a stone bench and facing a wall – a clear representation of Plato’s cave allegory. But the figurative allusion connects the contemporary world of capitalism to the world of the Platonic allegory more directly. The prisoners’ false understanding of the false world in which they were held captive is echoed in the false self-understanding of the inhuman world of globalised capitalism. This same self-misunderstanding of capitalism and of its integrated agents is metaphorically captured in the capitalist destiny of the newly excavated corpses. Governed wholly by the mercantilist laws of value, the capitalist world remains oblivious that it is a mere reflection of the cave and sees no irony in the commercial appropriation of the excavated Platonic cave as a lucrative tourist-site venture.

Saramago’s snapshot of life in contemporary capitalist modernity highlights the artificiality of life in spatially constricted and constraining high-rise apartment dwelling, of the vicarious emptiness of electronic simulations of hi-tech amusement parks, of the toxicity of the chemicalised world of inorganic production and consumption and of the increasingly cruel and exclusionary effects of the laws of the capitalist market. The severance of life from its natural, organic habitat of sentiment and sensibility is not new. Such a course was set by capitalist modernity with absolute determination from its earliest beginnings. Now the process is nearly complete. Assimilated into the logic of advanced capitalism, life now loses all vestiges of human feeling. It is as inauthentic and inert as the lifeless inorganic gadgetry that engulfs it. Such is the horrifying but realistic portrait of life in the Center, a high-rise residential and commercial complex in the heart of a city. The choice of the generic term ‘Center’ as the name of the place in which the cave is discovered and in which part of the action of Saramago’s novel takes place is hardly an arbitrary one ; it captures the commonality of forces characteristic of all high-rise complexes in all urban centres irrespective of their location on the globe. For the same reason, global homogeneity, the city in which the Center is located remains nameless.

The protagonist of the novel is not of the Center ; he is from a rural area the Center has not yet directly invaded. He, Cipriano Algor, is a widower who lives with his daughter and son-in-law in the village homestead and carries on the family tradition of pottery making as a means of livelihood. He is assisted by his daughter, Marta – also a potter – in making crockery for the Center. This commercial connection takes Cipriano to the Center regularly. He delivers his crockery and in the process drives his son-in-law, Marçal Gacho, to and from the Center. Marçal is employed as security guard by the Center under conditions that require that he remain on the premises ten successive days, when Cipriano picks him up to drive him back home to Marta for forty hours of freedom.

This is the background of the narrative, which begins as Cipriano drives Marçal, in the early hours of dawn, to the Center – a drive that Saramago seizes upon to paint a grim panorama of the unnatural, grey space through which they pass. The picture is horrifying only because its landscape is an accurate rendering of the assaulted state of contemporary topography. They drive through a so-called Agricultural Belt where “the only landscape the eyes can see on either side of the road, covering many thousands of apparently uninterrupted hectares are vast, rectangular, flat-roofed structures made of neutral-colored plastic which time and dust have gradually turned grey or brown. Beneath them where the eyes of passersby cannot reach, plants are growing” (p. 2). Crawling along in the dense, heavy traffic, they eventually reach the Industrial Belt of “factory buildings of every size, shape, and type, but also fuel tanks, both spherical and cylindrical, electricity substations, networks of pipes, air ducts, suspension bridges, tubes of every thickness, some red, some black, chimneys belching out pillars of toxic fumes into the atmosphere, long-armed cranes, chemical laboratories, oil refineries, fetid, bitter, sickly odors, the strident noise of drilling, the buzz of mechanical saws, the brutal thud of steam hammers and very occasionally, a zone of silence, where no one knows exactly what is being produced” (p. 3). Having passed through the Industrial Belt they reach the shantytown of “chaotic conglomerations of shacks made by their ill-housed inhabitants out of whatever mostly flimsy materials might help to keep out the elements, especially the rain and the cold … [and where] … in the name of the classical axiom which says that necessity knows no law, a truck laden with food is held up and emptied of its contents before you can say knife” (p. 4). Once in the city proper and after navigating the countless winding streets that would make any head spin, they reach the avenue where the Center is located and where Cipriano delivers his cargo and Marçal reports in for guard duty.

The plot begins to unfold at this juncture. Upon arrival at the delivery station and after hours of waiting his turn to unload his cargo, in a long line of truckers with the identical goal, Cipriano Algor is told that the Center will henceforth accept only a half-order of crockery since sales of such earthenware have dropped dramatically. Consumers now prefer plastics, which are cheaper and have the added feature of resisting breakage. He is instructed to take away all unsold crockery in the course of the following two weeks.

It is a devastating blow to Cipriano, since pottery – specifically crockery – is not only his livelihood but an essential part of his identity. He has been a potter all his life, as were his father and grandfather before him, and has drawn satisfaction from the recognition granted him as member of a noble and worthy profession. But times have changed. Indeed, shortly after this first blow, the Center cancels his crockery contract altogether. He feels humiliated and degraded by the indignity of dismissal by an unapologetic, unfeeling world as if he were less than one of the disposable pieces of plastic now replacing him. He feels the injustice of the unilateral ways of this world. From the beginning of his commercial association with the Center the rules of doing business were determined solely by the Center : Algor Pottery is prohibited from selling its crockery outside the Center, while the Center reserves the right to alter the contract at a moment’s notice or cancel it altogether without the slightest compensation.

This is the ethic of power of the contemporary world of globalised capital. Saramago’s fictional account of the injustice is conveyed in a literary form perfectly suited to the content. He juxtaposes characters of opposing values, which are worlds apart in their sense of right and wrong. He brings them face to face – as did the realist novelists of disillusionment of the nineteenth century – to accentuate and amplify the character of each side. The vulnerability and sensitivity of Cipriano is highlighted against the inhumanity of the agent of the Center’s compulsive mercantilism and unsparing bureaucracy. Under the pen of a less talented writer, such black and white opposition would have the jarring effect of exaggeration and simplification. But in Saramago’s masterful writing such opposition paves the way for the self-affirmative power of human dignity and of ethical freedom. Indeed, The Cave is a twenty-first-century Bildungsroman that portrays the infinite power of the human spirit to break through the false chains of enslavement. It is a portrayal of the undying force of freedom not merely to resist imprisonment but to create a truly human course. The novel’s main characters achieve self-understanding and together, as a community, leave oppression and exploitation behind to build a meaningful life elsewhere. Saramago’s characters take the road to freedom, but not before they experience the full extent of the darkness and the void of the world they now inhabit – the very world that they attempt to service creatively and one that, ironically, has no use for any real creativity.

Marta, Cipriano’s daughter, responds resourcefully to the Center’s disinterest in crockery. She proposes shifting away from production of crockery to a new production of figurines as a means of resuscitating Algor Pottery. Over two-thirds of the novel focuses on the new activity of creating figurines. But this narrative is no mere description of a technical process. To be sure, it does portray an activity as much dependent on knowledge of natural matter – its behaviour under varying and specific conditions – as on the will to create form. But more than that, it is a narrative that matches the depth of insight of the most rigorous philosophical treatise on form and matter, on their dialectical relation, on creative synthesis and human freedom. But the poetic language of gentle simplicity is of immeasurable beauty. The following passage is a concise re-statement of Aristotelian metaphysics of form and matter in a poetic language that would delight and charm even Aristotle. It combines the elements of matter – earth, water, fire and – with a Hegelian touch – modernises air and aether in the creativity of the rational idea that the character’s goal brings to fruition : creation of figurines of human likeness in the figures of jester, clown, mandarin, Eskimo, nurse and bearded Assyrian. I shall recite the passage in its entirety.
“It is said that a long time ago a god decided to make man out of the clay from the earth that he had previously created, and then, in order that the man should have breath and life, he blew into his nostrils. The whisper put around by certain stubborn, negative spirits, when they do not dare to say so out loud, is that after this supreme act of creation, the god never again practiced the arts of pottery, a roundabout way of denouncing him, for quite simply having downed tools. Given its evident importance, this is too serious a matter to be treated in simplistic terms, it requires thought, complete impartiality and a great deal of objectivity. It is a historical fact that from that day onward, the work of modeling clay ceased to be the exclusive attribute of the creator and passed to the incipient skills of his creatures, who, needless to say, are not equipped with sufficient life-giving puff. As a result, fire was given responsibility for all the subsidiary operations that can, through color, sheen or even sound, endow whatever emerges from the kilns with a reasonable semblance of life. However, this would be to judge by appearances. Fire can do a great deal, as no one can deny, but it cannot do everything, it has serious limitations and even some great defects, for example, a form of insatiable bulimia which causes it to reduce to ashes everything it finds in its path. Returning, however, to the matter at hand, to the pottery and its workings, we all know that if you put wet clay in the kiln it will have exploded in less time than it takes to say so. Fire lays down one irrevocable condition if we want it to do what we expect of it, the clay must be as dry as possible when it is placed in the kiln. And this is where we humbly return to that business about breathing into nostrils, and here we have to recognise how unjust and imprudent we were to take up as our own the heretical idea that the said god coldly turned his back on his own work. Yes, it is true, that no one ever saw him again, but he left us what was perhaps the best part of himself, the breath, the puff of air, the breeze, the soft wind, the zephyr, the very things that are now gently entering the nostrils of the six clay dolls that Cipriano Algor and his daughter have, with great care, just placed on one of the drying shelves” (pp. 155-56). It is clear from this pivotal passage that the activity of pottery making is a metaphor for the creativity of the human spirit and its organic connection with nature. It stands in stark opposition to the false, inorganic base and unreal processes of a virtual hi-tech world.

A basic principle of a work of art – literary or otherwise – is coherence as unity of form and content. If Rembrandt had chosen an even slightly lighter palette for The Night Watch, or if Murillo had placed his young Beggar’s head at an angle the slightest bit higher or lower, either work could well have retreated into the heap of historical curiosities instead of shining forth timelessly as a magnificent work of art. If Shakespeare had added one more word to Macbeth’s meditation on the meaning of life and of time or had deleted a single phrase from it, or if Pablo Neruda had added one more verse on material poverty to La Pobreza before introducing the theme of the wealth and dignity of the human spirit, neither would be the literary masterpiece it is. The principle of coherence bars the arbitrary, the unintended and the purely accidental from entering a work of art. This principle is not outdated, as postmodernism claims. Coherence is not wholly tied to proportion, symmetry and harmony characteristic of classical art. The dynamic character of form can readily appeal to disproportion and dissonance when its content requires it, as in the work of Samuel Beckett or that of Schoenberg. Meaning is integral to a work of art even when that meaning is the meaning of meaninglessness. Saramago has permitted nothing of the arbitrary to enter The Cave. The choice to produce dolls of human likeness is not arbitrary – as opposed to, say, a variety of dogs or birds or such animals – nor is the choice of types of dolls : Eskimo, bearded Assyrian, nurse, mandarin, jester and clown.

Cipriano and Marta make their selection on the basis of relative facility of production, but Saramago’s reasons go far deeper. Each one – bearded Assyrian, mandarin, Eskimo, clown, jester, nurse – resonates with the novel’s themes of transcendence of the falsehood of illusion, of organic unity, of spiritual and natural continuity. The bearded Assyrian represents a culture of literary creativity recorded on clay tablets in a unity of the spiritual and the natural ; the mandarin, a culture of poetry, literature and a philosophy whose basic tenet is the singularity of vital breath uniting all forms of life ; the Eskimo, a culture of unity between spirit and nature ; the clown, a transcendence of social conventions and taboos by mockingly showing their absurdity ; the jester, the defiant and transparent human wit whose freedom and frankness strikes down any illusion ; the nurse, the universal culture of nurturing and caring. These authentic and grounded figures of humanity stand in stark opposition to the modern banker, the marketing consultant, the Internet service provider. Indeed, the chosen figures – the nurse, the Eskimo, the clown, the jester, the bearded Assyrian, the mandarin – are hardly selected at random. Nor is anything arbitrary about Saramago’s constant rotation of the order in which the figurines appear in each successive reference. Rearranging is an effective device for counteracting the hierarchy of ordering – even ‘neutral’ alphabetical ordering freezes into hierarchy – and affirming the dignity of equality.

The writing style of The Cave is perfectly suited to its content. It is a paratactical, horizontal style of minimal punctuation. Saramago dispenses with a number of traditional stylistic conventions, including quotation marks for direct speech of characters, line change for change of speaker, the semi-colon for parallel phrases, the colon for ordering, the dash for subordinate phrases. The period is used sparingly but the comma extensively. It is a style that resonates with the themes of unity of spirit and nature, of organic community, of free flow of vital energy. The comma between the speech of one character and the next provides the airy space through which energy flows from one speaker to the other, eliminating the divisive distance created by the finality of the static period. The very shape and figure of the comma evokes the image of a flowing stream, or gentle breeze, which connects rather than divides. The shift in dialogue between distinct speakers is indicated only by a capitalised first word of the new speaker, securing his or her identity while eliminating any possible jarring effect of confusion. Saramago’s writing style re-creates the purity of ancient tablet writing – both stone and clay – free of punctuation and flowing in continuous horizontal line after line.

This stylistic aspect of Saramago’s distinct paratactical writing facilitates the flow of thought from one character to the other, from one subjectivity to the other. It affords a momentary pause in the interior world of feelings, yearnings, wishes, so intimate to the character and yet so universal. When Saramago takes the reader into the inner world of Cipriano or of Marta, he is taking her into a human world of sensitivity, of vulnerability, of unassuming nobility. He also takes her into the inner world of Found, the stray dog – a world of feelings of dependence and of quiet but loving acknowledgement of the acceptance that Cipriano and Marta spontaneously have granted him. Found happened to take refuge in the Algor outdoor kennel on a cold and rainy night and has quickly become a beloved and loving member of the family. He is portrayed as a distinct personality with feelings and independent judgements, whose relationship to Cipriano and Marta echoes Saramago’s philosophical themes of the singularity of life’s vital force and of the goodness of organic togetherness.

The authentic qualities and human sensibilities of the two principal characters, Cipriano and Marta, are portrayed in one of the most truly human relationships between father and daughter in the literary repertoire. Saramago bases the relationship on the principles of respectful caring and nurturing. Father and daughter have the virtues of sensitivity to the other’s feelings and of self-restraint from intruding into the other’s emotional world when it is felt unwanted. This is no traditional relation of paternal authority and filial piety. Marta and Cipriano are, above all, friends. They honour and respect each other. Their deep mutual affection has no need for ostentatious expression of sentiment. They know and feel the place they occupy in each other’s heart.

Saramago adds a tale of sentimentality to Cipriano’s life in a way that rounds out this central character, highlighting his sensibility and all-too-human vulnerability. A widower in his mid-sixties, he habitually visits the grave of his beloved late wife. On one of these visits he meets a younger widow, Isaura Estudiosa, at the cemetery when she, too, is visiting her late spouse’s grave. Being of the same village, they have a passing acquaintance with one another and indeed, their respective visits to the cemetery have, on occasion, coincided. But this time, after a brief conversation about Isaura’s Algor Pottery water jug whose handle had broken off and Cipriano’s promise to provide a new jug, Cipriano begins to feel a strong attraction to Isaura, which he is hardly prepared to acknowledge even to himself. Such feelings may be natural and appropriate for a younger man but, in his mind, not for someone of his sixty-four years. His struggle with age-appropriate feelings leads to his misinterpreting Marta’s motivation for keeping from him news of an important development in her life. As they discuss various aspects of the production of the figurines – a matter totally unrelated to Isaura or to Cipriano’s feelings for her – Marta inadvertently confesses that she, Marta, is pregnant and that she has known of the pregnancy for three days but, for the time being, decided against announcing the news to her father. He thinks she wanted to spare him the embarrassment of a soon-to-be grandfather who dares have amorous feelings at this late stage in his life, whereas she merely wanted to avoid adding to his worries in the present circumstances of economic insecurity.

In a passage that is arguably the most poignant of the entire novel, Saramago probes the meaning of the universal subjective relation of the self to the object of its labour – that identity relation in which the self invests itself in the process and finality of labour. It is the passage of the disposal of the crockery now rejected by the Center : the countless plates, cups, saucers, mugs, teapots, casseroles, serving platters. It is one in which Saramago’s poetic genius shines to its fullest as much by what is said as by what is not said. Saramago has no need to spell out to the reader that the crockery represents – for Cipriano – hours and hours of toil and effort, of fatigue, of painful limbs and joints, of the occasional momentary relief and ultimately of satisfaction with the finished product. Saramago has no need to tell the reader that Cipriano could never bring himself to break them into pieces and toss them out as garbage. The reader knows that breaking them would be like breaking his own limbs or a part of his soul. A description of where and how Cipriano selects to stow them suffices.

In the countryside at the foot of a cliff by the river there is a cave that Cipriano has known since his childhood. He parks his van loaded with crockery at the top of the cliff and carries armful after armful of plates and platters, of cups and saucers, of teapots and casseroles, down the cliff tirelessly, round after round. He places them on the cave floor in neat piles side by side, like upon like, with such care that not a single plate or cup is broken nor “a single teapot … deprived of its spout. The regular lines of the piled-up pottery fill one chosen corner of the hollow, they encircle the trunks of the trees, snake about among the low vegetation as if it had been written in some great book that they should remain like that until the end of time and until the unlikely resurrection of their remains” (p. 139). And when he has so stowed them, he places twigs, branches and leaves in the entrance to camouflage the opening and so to shelter and protect his creations lying inside. How different the atmosphere of the interior of this cave, Cipriano’s cave, from that of the Center’s newly discovered cave with its human corpses chained to a bench.

The plot has the two potters, Cipriano and Marta, proceeding with boundless energy and enthusiasm to prepare a business report for the Center’s consideration. They hold on to the hope for a bright future of figurine production. In three days’ time, Cipriano would be returning to the Center to drive Marçal back home and he could submit the proposal at that time. They work intensely and tirelessly discussing, reading, selecting, sketching, experimenting, modelling and remodelling, moulding and remoulding, painting and repainting. This is a wholly new area of activity for the Algors, requiring extensive research and much experimentation to develop new ways and techniques for creating new shapes and forms with familiar and unfamiliar material. Moments of exasperation when the clay does not comply with expectation are interspersed with moments of elation when perfection and beauty emerge from the creative impulse.

They spontaneously settle into a harmonious division of labour, with Marta sketching, designing and painting and Cipriano kneading, shaping and forming the clay and bringing the dolls to a sculpted life. An organic community is at work, consisting not only of Marta and Cipriano and their ancestors similarly engaged in the activity of making pottery, but of the natural clay itself as it responds to the gentle prodding of Cipriano’s expert hands and purposeful will. Form and matter are perfectly attuned to one another as they engage in the partnership of achieving a common goal. As Cipriano kneads and moulds the clay, the clay softens and swells ; as he imparts the form of distinct figurine to each respective piece of clay, the clay – with the heat of the kiln – becomes a beautiful and distinct work of art. Even Found shares the happy excitement of the creative activity.

There are as many brilliant flashes of wit and poetic beauty in Saramago’s account of figurine production as there are sparkles of light in a fast-flowing river on a sunny afternoon. At times in the voice of the protagonist, at times in the auctorial voice – clearly the voice of José Saramago the person, not just the author – universal themes of life are brought under new light. He speculates with astounding clarity and immeasurable depth on such age-old questions as the origin and meaning of life, the sense of time, the creative force of language, the sense or non-sense of conventional wisdom. With incomparable poetic gusto, Saramago reassesses expressions of common language showing them to be sorely wanting in good, common sense. “Authoritarian, paralyzing, circular, occasionally elliptical stock phrases, also jocularly referred to as nuggets of wisdom, are a malignant plague, one of the very worst ever to ravage the earth. We say to the confused, Know thyself, as if knowing yourself was not the fifth and most difficult of human arithmetic operations, we say to the apathetic, Where there’s a will, there’s a way, as if the brute realities of the world did not amuse themselves each day by turning that phrase on its head, we say to the indecisive, Begin at the beginning, as if beginning were the clearly visible point of a loosely wound thread and all we had to do was to keep pulling until we reach the other end, and as if between the former and the latter, we had held in our hands a smooth, continuous thread with no knots to untie, no snarls to untangle, a complete impossibility in the life of a skein, or indeed, if we may be permitted one more stock phrase, in the skein of life” (p. 56).

Cipriano’s and Marta’s efforts to produce the figurines initially bear fruit. The head of the Center’s buying department orders twelve hundred figurines – two hundred of each of the six different dolls presented in the business proposal:jk nurse, jester, clown, bearded Assyrian, mandarin and Eskimo. When three hundred figurines have been completed, Cipriano prepares their delivery, wrapping each doll carefully one by one. He is pleased with the excellence of their quality. He and Marta have inspected each one individually to assure that not even the slightest imperfection remains in any one of them.

But a cruel reception awaits Cipriano at the Center. He is informed – contrary to the original understanding – that the three hundred figurines will serve as samples in a marketing survey designed to assess the market prospects for such a product and the result will determine whether the remaining nine hundred dolls are to be produced or whether production is to cease completely. The result will indicate whether Algor Pottery is to continue servicing the Center or whether all commercial ties are to be severed definitively. The Center’s agent has not the slightest inkling that these unilateral mid-way changes to the original agreement are profoundly unjust. To him, they are the ethic of business, pure and simple. He is not at all aware he is dealing a crushing blow to Cipriano by taking away the guarantee of what was formerly called one’s ‘word of honour’ to respect agreements. To Cipriano – who has long ceased to have any confidence in the Center – the new development is a presentiment of negative survey results. And so it comes to pass. Commerce between Algor Pottery and the Center are brought to an end.

Saramago could not have drawn a sharper contrast between the activity of creation of figurines and the sterility of surveying devices of the market. He could have drawn no better opposition between the authenticity, warmth and serenity of Cipriano’s and Marta’s world and the falseness, callousness and cruelty of the Center. This poetic contrast between the two worlds reveals the frightful truth about the contemporary, unreal, virtual civilization, its aversion to organic creativity and its penchant for humiliation and destruction.

Dispirited and aware of his reduced options for the future, Cipriano agrees to leave the homestead and live in an apartment in the Center with his daughter and son-in-law. Marçal has received his promotion to resident security guard and is now entitled to occupy – along with his family – a very small thirty-fourth-floor apartment. And it is here, at the Center, that asphyxiation and vertigo enter Cipriano’s life. The only alternative to the stifling air and cramped space of his stamp-sized bedroom – first mistaken for the closet – is to enter the dizzying space of commercial, social and hi-tech entertainment of the infinite universe of the Center.

If the sights and sounds of the landscape between the village and the Center are horrific in their realism, the Center’s interior sights and sounds are eerie in the reality of their ‘unrealism’. The accuracy of depiction of the ugliness and devastation of contemporary topography is alarming, as is the unnaturalness and falseness of contemporary hi-tech virtual life. Saramago’s account of the ghastly landscape through which Cipriano drives to arrive at the Center – the Green Belt of plastic-covered, grey constructs, hiding geometrically arranged and genetically modified plants ; the Industrial Belt of black soot and deafening metallic clanging ; the shantytown of human impoverishment ; the city of ever-increasing congestion – is no more than a documentary of the contemporary urban world, as is his account of the virtual space of the Center where reality is replaced by the electronic virtuality of contemporary civilization. Saramago paints the Center’s interior of “new arcades, shops, escalators, meeting points, cafés, and restaurants, many other equally interesting and varied installations, for example, a carousel of horses, a carousel of space rockets, a center for toddlers, a center for the Third Age, a tunnel of love, a suspension bridge, a ghost train, an astrologer’s tent, a betting shop. A rifle range, a golf course, a luxury hospital, another slightly less luxurious hospital, a bowling alley, a billiard hall, a battery of table football games, a giant map, a secret door, another door with a notice on it saying experience natural sensations, rain, wind, and snow on demand, a wall of china, a taj mahal, an egyptian pyramid, a temple of karnak, a real aqueduct, a mafra monastery, a clerics’ tower, a fjord, a summer sky with fluffy clouds, a lake, a real palm tree, the skeleton of a tyrannosaurus, another one apparently alive, himalayas complete with everest, an amazon river complete with Indians, a stone raft, a Corcovado Christ, a Trojan horse, an electric chair, a firing squad, an angel playing a trumpet, a communications satellite, a comet, a galaxy, a large dwarf, a small giant, a list of prodigies so long that not even eighty years of leisure time would be enough to take them all in, even if you had been born in the Center and had never left it for the outside world” (pp. 269-70). Saramago has no need to resort to the device of exaggeration characteristic of satire or of parody to express the ironic tragedy of contemporary capitalist culture. He need only describe this culture, as in the above passage of factual realism. The unreality of this civilization, its virtual decadence speaks for itself, though, ironically, in a self-styled language of progress.

The climax of the novel is a self-transformative moment of epiphany for the main characters, and in this sense the novel sustains a direct connection with the Bildungsroman of the eighteenth century. Shortly after moving to the Center, Cipriano becomes curious about clanging noises emanating from the underground area. He sets out to trace the noise to its source and this takes him to a secret underground excavation site where he comes face to face with excavated human corpses chained to a bench facing a wall. Cipriano does not know that the scene evokes the allegory of Plato’s cave but he intuitively and spontaneously understands the meaning of the scene. He foresees, in the chained corpses, the significance and destiny of this false contemporary civilization. He flees not only the immediate scene of decomposing chained prisoners but life in the Center altogether. Such a moment of epiphany is also experienced by Marçal and Marta, who also take flight from the Center, cutting all ties to it – only days after Cipriano’s hasty departure. They meet in the family homestead and together with the neighbouring widow, Isaura, to whom Cipriano has expressed his love, decide to leave home and the village and to build a new life far away from the prison of the Center and all the insanity that it represents. The moment of epiphany is a moment of awareness of the universal human capacity to escape imprisonment and to achieve freedom, the essential characteristic of the Bildungsroman. The novel ends as Cipriano, Marta, Marçal, Isaura and Found board the van after closing the family house and the kiln, and drive away.

The Cave is a contemporary Bildungsroman of emerging self-consciousness of freedom in the course of experiences of the changing constellation of current historical forces. Self-consciousness is achieved by the protagonist, a man of many human qualities. He comes to understand the meaning of life and the dignity of freedom of action and engagement as a result of his resistance to the powerful and dehumanizing forces with which he is forced to do commerce. These are the forces that the scene of the cave puts into clear focus. At no time did he actually have illusions about the Center. He saw and deplored its power-wielding mode of operation and understood its crippling effect on people’s lives. His strong aversion to the lifestyle it represents has not changed. He combines wisdom and good judgement with sentiment and compassion. He is able to assess the destructive social and environmental effects of capitalist reality and he comes to understand the innate power of reason to resist assimilation to it and to seek a new, truly human course. He understands the self-affirmative essence of freedom to defy integration into a false world. His self-understanding had, from the start, little illusion to overcome. The distance between the pre-cave Cipriano and the Cipriano of true insight and self-understanding is not great. It is otherwise with Marçal, Cipriano’s son-in-law.

Marçal is a secondary character. He is first introduced as a young man from a village adjacent to Cipriano’s who is married to Marta and employed as security guard by the Center. His goal is to live in the Center. He dreams of being promoted to resident security guard and of living permanently in an apartment of the Center’s high-rise building complex with access to all the amenities of modern living and the convenience of working on the same premises. Indeed, Marçal’s wish for career promotion to resident security guard is tied to his dream of residing in the Center.

When the excavation work uncovers the human corpses, the resident security guards are summoned by the captain of security for instruction about when and how to guard the site. Each guard is assigned a four-hour shift in a succession of six shifts covering day and night. Marçal is required to participate in this guard duty under oath of secrecy – as are the other guards – until a team of specialists ranging from forensic experts to archaeologists and anthropologists has time to examine it. With a touch of quiet wit, Saramago has the captain adding to his announcement, “even a couple of philosophers too, though don’t ask me why” (p. 227). Marçal’s immediate reaction to seeing the corpses of the chained prisoners is the human reaction of tearful shock and fear. But it does not take him long – as it did not take Cipriano long – to draw the right conclusion of self-identification with the chained corpses. “They could be us !”

To the agents of capitalism who are constantly seeking out new profitable ventures, the cave is a windfall. Tourists would be prepared to pay a handsome fee to view the rare scene. Indeed, advertisements for viewing the site have already been posted at the novel’s closing. Marçal relates to Cipriano, Marta and Isaura that when he left the Center just days earlier, he noticed “a poster, one of the really big ones”, fixed to the exterior of the building promoting public viewing of the cave in big, bold letters : “COMING SOON, PUBLIC OPENING OF PLATO’S CAVE, AN EXCLUSIVE ATTRACTION, UNIQUE IN THE WORLD, BUY YOUR TICKET NOW” (p. 307). And so ends the novel ; and so continues the irony of capitalist self-misunderstanding.

Saramago’s prose is as much a philosophical, political and ecological treatise as it is a work of literary art. Humanity, for Saramago, is not destined for imprisonment, however natural, real or seductive imprisonment is made to appear. The strongest shackles are no match for the ingenuity of the human sprit to break away and achieve its essential freedom and dignity. Infinite creativity is its singular attribute. But hope for such humanity is placed not in the integrated centre of the contemporary world of exclusionary capitalism and of digital and virtual culture. It is placed at the periphery. With this claim Saramago joins a long list of eminent critics who put their hope for humanity’s freedom in the marginalised and excluded, in the exploited and victimised. Hope is placed in these human beings not only because they are marginalised and excluded nor only because they feel and know the indignity of injustice and the falsehood of illusion, but also and especially because they have not broken the essential unity of spirit and nature. Theirs is the power to transcend the false and to create the real and the true.

par Koula Mellos

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[1] Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Harcourt Books, London, 2000. Page references are from this publication.

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