José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and published The Cave two years later. Like most of his novels, it deals in allegory, metafiction, surrealism and the like, and he swings for the fences. Here, he also employs a kind of run-on-sentence narrative technique that took me a chapter or so to get used to (dialogue or point-of-view shifts from one character to another are often marked only by commas followed by initial capitals, rather than periods followed by paragraph breaks). This technique appeared in an earlier novel, Blindness, but here it’s used even more extensively.
By all accounts, Saramago was a serious curmudgeon, a radical leftist from a country—Portugal—that has trouble with such types, and not just because they’re not Catholic. For excellent background on Saramago, including his eccentric personality, his various political views and such, see the excellent wide-ranging 2007 piece from the New York Times linked below. Saramago did not become a full-time writer until his fifties, then lived for many years in the Portuguese Canary Islands. He died in 2010.
The Cave tells the story of an old man, Cipriano Algor, who lives with his grown daughter, Marta, and her husband, Marçal Gacho, in a humble home in the countryside. Marçal works in a guarded compound called “The Center”, a sprawling government building of sixty stories or more, which includes living quarters for some but not all of its employees. He comes home every ten days for one day off. Cipriano and Marta are ceramicists, who successfully pitch one project for The Center as independent contractors, and then another when that project is scuttled for reasons that are unclear to them.
Marçal is in line for an apartment in The Center, and when it comes through all three move in. Marta misses her potter’s wheel, and has reservations about living full time in The Center. She and we begin to see more about the place, and so do her father and husband. Over the course of the last fifty pages, we reach a conclusion as unexpected, allegorical and true as one can imagine. Suffice it to say here, there’s more to The Center than meets the eye.
Published in 2000, this novel has one foot planted in each of two centuries . . . or millenia.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .