Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Cave

I've been reading Jose Saramago's novel The Cave, and I've got to say, it's an artful and charming piece of work. Saramago won the Nobel prize in 1998, and while I had obviously heard of him I had not read anything he had written until this one. The Cave is set in a unnamed country in a vaguely delineated, vaguely dystopian future time. The main character is a potter named Cipriano Algor, who lives with his daughter in the country and delivers his wares every few weeks to to a somewhat sinister business and residential combine in the city referred to only as the Center. The first disruptive event in Cipriano's rather placid life — Cipriano is a placid man, a ruminative man, the kind of man to befriend a lost dog, and when he has done so, to name him "Found"and check on him in the middle of the night — comes when he is given notice that the Center will no longer be accepting his wares, because customers have stopped buying handcrafted pottery, in favor of plastic containers which are cheaper and less likely to chip or break. This initial disturbance is followed by a number of others, as Cipriano begins his journey from the life he once knew toward a re-invention forced upon him by circumstances.

What I most like about the book is the loose, bemused, allusive voice of the narrator, who has a tendency to string thoughts together with only the bare mininum in terms of punctuation or writerly punctiliousness about the niceties of sentence structure. Many of the passages interweave the narrative proper with what at first seem to be the more or less random thoughts of the narrator as he tells the story. But these digression. In this passage, for example, Cipriano goes to visit the grave of his dead wife, but we are treated along the way to a) an inventory of the locations in which Cipriano no longer experiences her presence (thereby suggesting the depth of his solitude), b) a little homily on the shortness of life, spoken by the narrator as if he were addressing his own character, c) a commentary on Cipriano's actions and what they imply about the nature of time, this time directed to us as readers, which segues into d) another meditation on the nature of writing itself:

Cipriano Algor approached his wife's grave, she has been under there for three years now, three years during which she has appeared nowhere, not in the house, not in the pottery, not in bed, not beneath the shade of the mulberry tree, nor at the clay pit beneath the scorching sun, she has not sat down again at the table or at the potter's wheel, nor has she cleared out the ashes fallen from the grate, nor seen the earthenware pots and plates set out to dry, she does not peel the potatoes, knead the clay, or say, That's the way things are, Cipriano, life only gives you two days, and given the number of people who only get to live for a day and a half, and others even less, we can't really complain. Cipriano Algor stayed no longer than three minutes, he was intelligent enough to know that the important thing was not to stand there, with prayers or without, looking at the grave, the important thing was to have come, the important thing is the road you walked, the journey you made, if you are aware of prolonging your contemplation of the grave it is be cause you are watching yourself or, worse still, it is because you hope others are watching you. Compared with the instantaneous speed of thought, which heads off in a straight line even when it seems to us to have lost its way, because what we fail to realize is that, as it races off in one direction, it is in fact advancing in all directions at once, anyway, as we were saying, compared with that, the poor word is constantly having to ask permission from one foot to lift the other foot, and even then it is always stumbling, hesitating and dithering over an adjective or a verb that turns up unannounced by its subject, and that must be why Cipriano did not have time to tell his wife everything that was on his mind, apart from that business about it being unjust, Justa, but it may well be that the murmurings we can hear coming from him now, as he walks toward the gate leading out of the cemetery, are precisely what he had meant to say. (32-3)  
Throughout the book the sentences unfold in surprising and often delightful ways like this. It's not a book that seems to explicitly to be trying to be funny, but I often find myself laughing out loud, just because the story keeps taking minor, delight-ful turns. A little bit later in the book, the narrator delivers himself of a little mini-essay on a subject I've actually been thinking a lot about lately, as I have gotten more deeply involved in making art. One of the interesting things about art in particular, and innovation in general, is that so much of it occurs in the making itself, not in the planning. The brain can hatch a plan, but often the brain is better advised to step aside, let the fingers take over, and see what turns up. Saramago takes this somewhat familiar idea and literalizes it, postulating that in fact the fingers have brains of their very own:

Indeed, very few people are aware that in each of our fingers, located somewhere between the first phalange, the mesophalange, and the metaphalange, there is a tiny brain. The fact is that the other organ which we call the brain, the one with which we came into the world, the one which we transport around in our head and which transports us so that we can transport it, has only ever had very general, vague, diffuse and, above all, unimaginative ideas about what the hands and fingers should do. For example, if the brain-in-our-head suddenly gets an idea for a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music or literature, or a clay figurine, it simply sends a signal to that effect and then waits to see what will happen. Having sent an order to the hands and fingers, it believes, or pretends to believe, that the task will then be completed, once the extremities of the arms have done their work. The brain has never been curious enough to ask itself why the end result of this manipulative process, which is complex even in its simplest forms, bears so little resemblance to what the brain had imagined before it issued its instructions to the hands. It should be noted that the fingers are not born with brains, these develop gradually with the passage of time and with the help of what the eyes see. The help of the eyes is important, as important as what is seen through them. That is why the fingers have always excelled at uncovering what is concealed. Anything in the brain-in-our-head that appears to have an instinctive, magical, or supernatural quality— whatever that may mean—is taught to it by the small brains in our fingers. In order for the brain-in-the-head to know what a stone is, the fingers first have to touch it, to feel its rough surface, its weight and density, to cut themselves on it. Only long afterward does the brain realize that from a fragment of that rock one could make something which the brain will call a knife or something it will call an idol. The brain-in-the-head has always lagged behind the hands, and even now, when it seems to have overtaken them, the fingers still have to summarize for it the results of their tactile investigations, the shiver that runs across the epidermis when it touches clay, the lacerating sharpness of the graver, the acid biting into the plate, the faint vibration of a piece of paper laid flat, the orography of textures, the crosshatching of fibers, the alphabet of the world in relief. (66-7)

I don't know about you, but I think this is just apt and dead-on accurate and basically just way too cool, most especially that wonderful, surprising, disarming, elegant final parallel construction, culminating as it does in the metaphor of the alphabet of the world. This is writing which enacts verbally exactly what it is describing conceptually about the nature of invention and surprise.

1 comment:

Elizabeth said...

Beautiful. Reading this is like being involved in conversation with extraordinary people (which is the very description of good writing). I'm glad to have read it this Sunday morning, right after reading your next post about saying goodbyes: now I can breathe more deeply about this school year being over. Sigh. Love, ohaha, Liz