Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Cave

On the flight back from Portugal, I had the chance to read Jose Saramago’s The Cave, a novel that has a simple story with a predictable plot that’s set in the near future. It can, however, be read on a whole series of levels. The story centers around a 76-year-old potter, Cipriano Algor, who lives with his daughter and son-in-law in a simple home where he makes pottery in the same manner that his father and grandfather did. Unlike his ancestors, however, he sells his pottery exclusively to the Center, which Saramago presents as the ultimate corporation/shopping mall/ modern residential complex. The Center suddenly refuses to carry any more of Algor’s pottery, so he has to figure out some other way to support himself. As he’s dealing with that quandary, his son-in-law, Marcal, who is a security guard for the Center, is offered an apartment in the Center as part of his job promotion. But as he loses his connections with his pottery and his sense of himself as a potter, he gains new connections—with his daughter, with his recently met dog, Found, and ultimately even with his son-in-law. Algor struggles with whether or not to move with his family or carry on a new form of business until the Center pulls out of its offer on his new products as well. Feeling there is no other choice, he joins his family in their move to the apartment and then sneaks down to where his son-in-law is stationed one evening and makes a startling discovery.

The storyline, clearly meant to be an allegory, is not what stands out in The Cave. Instead it’s Saramago’s stream-of-consciousness style that captures the reader as he fills in the characters’ motivations and reactions to events around them or interrupts the story with side discussions about storytelling, family foibles, or the meaning of literature. Amidst it all there are retellings of creation myths, the story of Adam and Eve, and Plato’s myth of the cave, which is retold several different times in different contexts. In several places The Cave and The Matrix echoed off each other in interesting ways. All of this is going on while Saramago is of course also making a point regularly found in his writing, critiquing the evils of corporate capitalism and consumer culture.

If I was allowed to choose my own texts for courses I teach, The Cave would be ideal to assign to my introductory philosophy class that spends 2/3rds of the semester reading Plato as a postmodern reading of the ancient myth. It'd give them a sense of how the dialogues they've been studying continue to live in newer settings. With standardized texts, though, all I can do is mention it as worth reading when we get to the part of the course on The Republic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with your analysis of Saramago's style, which I find more significant than his plots. I posted a short item on my website about his style, mostly because I wanted to draw attention to a particular sentence that blew my mind. Here's the link: sullivanwords.com .