Book Review

The Cave

José Saramago.
Harcourt, 2002.
320 Pages.
ISBN 0151004145; Hardcover $25.00 [

Review by LJ Lindhurst

At a cursory glance, not a whole lot seems to happen in The Cave. Nobel laureate José Saramago's twelfth novel is a gentle tale about gentle people. There is little to no action, the book contains a lengthy, technical discourse on the finer points of fire-kilned pottery, and the protagonist is an elderly widower who really doesn't get around too much. But don't let this description fool you -- The Cave is a beautiful novel, rich with inter-character tensions, and like all of Saramago's work, it reads with a rambling beauty and an irresistible wink-wink charm.
The Cave examines the simple life of Cipriano Algor, an old-fashioned earthenware potter. The last in a line of potters stretching back for three generations, Cipriano's work is rapidly becoming obsolete. Cipriano, who is getting on in years, lives with his pregnant daughter Marta and her husband Marcal on the outskirts of a small rural village. He sells his pottery solely to an enormous shopping and living complex called "The Center," located on the outskirts of the nearby city. As in Saramago's last two novels, Blindness and All The Names, he leaves the city and country of his setting unnamed, and his narrative is deliberately free from specific political or cultural references. The Center could be in any town in any country, and Saramago delivers his message loud and clear: that's not what this story is about.
The Center is a generic "Mall of America" of mind-boggling size; already forty-eight stories tall, it continues to expand at an alarming rate. Containing its own apartments, hospitals, businesses, and shopping centers, The Center is a microcosm of a modern city: people live, work, and entertain themselves there with a myriad of high-tech stimuli, eliminating the need to venture outside of its carefully guarded walls. The Center at once supports and threatens Cipriano's cozy domesticity; at the beginning of the story he is suddenly informed that plastic utensils will be replacing his pottery, thereby putting him out of business. At the same time, his son-in-law, who is employed by The Center, is awaiting his imminent promotion to "Resident Guard," after which Marcal and Marta may relocate to one of its much-coveted apartments. They want Cipriano to move with them -- particularly since it seems he can no longer support himself -- but he is naturally hesitant to leave behind his livelihood and family homestead.
This central conflict exposes the subtle tensions and self-doubts amongst all three main characters, and Saramago draws them out in his usual rich detail. Cipriano is comfortable in his routine, and gratified by the rewards of hard work and pride in his family craft. When The Center informs him that they will no longer be needing his pottery, he is plunged into a late-life crisis. Not only is he forced to face an uncertain financial future, but he no longer feels as though he has a purpose in life. This gentle man's despair is nothing short of heartbreaking. In one of the most beautiful passages in the novel, Saramago describes how Cipriano handles the task of removing a huge amount of his unwanted pottery from The Center's warehouse; in an exquisitely moving ritual, he carefully stacks all of the pottery in neat rows in the middle of a wooded hollow:

We have only to observe the care with which Cipriano Algor goes down the slope, the trouble he takes in placing the various bits of pottery on the ground, in keeping like with like, fitting one inside the other when he can and when it seems advisable, it is enough to see this laughable scene with our own eyes for us to state categorically that not a single plate was broken, that not a single cup lost its handle and not a single teapot was deprived of its spout. The regular lines of 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.

Marta, on the other hand, is a devoted wife and daughter, equally as comfortable in her domestic duties as she is working the kiln with her father. As a character, Marta is an exercise in extreme devotion: she's completely consumed with devotion to her husband, her father, and to her craft, and yet such binding dedication naturally limits her autonomy. Marta can never be selfish, never think of her own good, but rather what will best benefit her father, husband, and unborn child. She's also a talented and refreshingly inventive potter; when The Center cancels their standing order with Cipriano, it is Marta who comes up with the idea of making earthenware dolls to sell instead.
This idea -- which for much of the book remains just that, an idea -- proves to be pivotal. That he could make something different has never even occurred to Cipriano, and it poses many technical problems that must be solved by father and daughter working together. It also sharply illustrates his desperation, an aging craftsman practicing an obsolete craft in the face of a heartless bureaucracy. The Center is interested in buying the dolls, but only as an "experiment;" they want to conduct targeted research on potential customers before placing further orders. To further complicate matters, Marcal's upcoming promotion and the resulting move to The Center could stop the project altogether. Despite these insecurities, Marta and Cipriano forge on, working long hours, and never stopping to question the probable futility of their work. It is not the end result but the work itself that is valuable to them, and without it, Cipriano would have no hope and nothing to occupy his thoughts and time.
Marta's husband is another matter entirely. A wonderfully complex character, Marcal is full of contradictions. He is loving and kind to both his wife and father-in-law, but at the same time he can be seen as something of a villain, an outsider who threatens to upset the façade of domestic tranquility by forcing them to abandon their homestead for the cramped, antiseptic quarters of The Center. Additionally, his job often keeps him away from home; working, living and sleeping at The Center for up to ten days at a time. Marcal is out of touch with the intimate goings-on in the Algor house, and he's a sensitive enough soul to feel it, remarking early on that "not even the dogs know me here." Just as Marta is limited by the demands of her instinctual devotion, Marcal is trapped by his sense of responsibility and his necessarily realistic outlook. He knows that Cipriano cannot continue to make a living, and he loves him and wants to take care of him. Unfortunately, his only real option is to allow his family to be swallowed whole by the ravenous anonymity of The Center. He wants to provide as best he can for his family and unborn child, but can only do so by submitting to the regime of a workplace so oppressive that it dictates the amount of personal belongings you can have in your home:

It was during supper that Marcal gave an important bit of news that he had forgotten about, something that irritated Marta intensely, You mean that we can't take any of our own things with us, You can take some things, ornaments for example, but not furniture or crockery or glasses or cutlery or towels or curtains or bed linen, the apartment has those things already, So we won't really be moving then, at least not what is usually meant by moving, said Cipriano Algor, The people will be moving, So we'll have to leave this house with everything in it, said Marta, There's no other option.

In order to live in The Center, they will have to leave behind their belongings, the kiln, and even the new-found and much beloved family dog (another staple of Saramago's novels).
Although the warmth and richness of the characters places The Cave far above simple allegory, it is hard to escape the meanings Saramago invests in The Center and its effects on Cipriano's family. The story is a scathing indictment of mindless technological advancement, which Saramago suggests slowly destroys a person's sense of individuality and robs them of the reward of a good day's work. An unholy matrimony of sterile technology, rampant consumerist culture, and passive living, The Center represents the worst in consumer appetites, distilling even rain and snow into a carefully orchestrated computer-generated show. In a Rabelaisian passage typical of Saramago's rambling but pointed style, the passing attractions of this world are outlined in overwhelming detail as Cipriano, Marta and Marcal first take the elevator to their new apartment on the twentieth floor:

The part of the elevator that looked out over the Center was entirely made of glass. It traveled slowly past the different floors, revealing a succession of arcades, shops, fancy staircases, escalators, meeting points, cafes, restaurants, terraces with tables and chairs, cinemas and theaters, discotheques, enormous television screens, endless numbers of ornaments, electronic games, balloons, fountains and other water features, platforms, hanging gardens, posters, pennants, advertising billboards, mannequins, changing rooms, the facade of a church, the entrance to the beach, a bingo hall, a casino, a tennis court, a gymnasium, a roller coaster, a zoo, a racetrack for electric cars, a cyclorama, a cascade, all waiting, all in silence, and more shops and more arcades and more mannequins and more hanging gardens and things for which people probably didn't even know the names, as if they were ascending into paradise.

However, one gets the sense that it is not "paradise" that Saramago sees in our snowballing technology. The Algor family is a tiny vestige of all of the things Saramago's monstrous technology is relentlessly wiping out: the simple life, family heritage, rustic craftsmanship, and intimate communication.
One wonders what else Saramago sees reflected in the struggles of Cipriano: an aging artisan, he labors at an obsolete craft, rendered so anonymous and unimportant by the forces of bureaucracy and technology that they can't even be bothered to laugh in his face. Like his own discarded creations, the potter sits unnoticed -- yet pristine -- in the midst of a rapidly changing world. In his 1998 Nobel Prize lecture, Saramago outlined the progression of his novels, explaining how each protagonist's journey paralleled his own life, and that each of his creations was also partially responsible for creating him. "Letter-by-letter, word-by-word, page-by-page, book after book," he said, "I have been successively implanting in the man I was the characters I created." If this is so, then one can only look in awe at the man he has become, and perhaps worry, like a grown grandchild, about his gnawing sense of uselessness in the autumn of his life. As with Marta in one of the novel's more tender moments, you want to wrap a blanket around this old man's shoulders and assure him that there will always be a place in this world for a carefully-crafted and delicate work. Like Cipriano's earthenware dolls, The Cave reminds us that the pace of technology cannot strip us of reverence for the simple act of creating a thing of beauty.

--LJ Lindhurst
18 February 2003

Additional Information

Nobel Saramago Page -- Among other things, this site contains José Saramago's 1998 Acceptance Speech.


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