There are many unsatisfying ways to read Jose Saramago’s The Cave. The book is perhaps at its weakest as an allegory of a traditional potter trod upon by corporate capitalism. Corporations’ willingness and ability to stamp out hand crafted goods in favor of cheaper, and less mysterious, mass produced plastic items should not be a surprise to anyone. Nor should be the scorn that Saramago heaps on his evil corporation, The Center, for what it has done to his poor, simple potter, Cipriano Algor. There’s so little moral ambiguity in the story of the omnipotent corporation versus the downtrodden potter that the allegory could only possibly work as a moral fable to teach children about the ills of capitalism. In other words, it’s not particularly likely to hold a reader’s attention.
As a suspenseful piece of fiction, The Cave is also weak. There is some story, but it is so simple and straightforward that most of Saramago’s readers will have no trouble figuring out what will happen. On top of that, the plot carries such a feeling of inevitability, that even if there were novel twists and turns, they would be rendered impotent by the lack of suspense. In terms of dramatic suspense, reading The Cave is like reading the novelization of a movie that you have already seen.
In two important ways then, The Cave is lock-step and unsatisfying, yet it remains that, overall, the book is a satisfying, enjoyable, read. What is it in this book that holds a reader’s attention and brings satisfaction? In a word, characters.
Although there is no suspense as to what will happen in the plot, there is suspense as to Saramago’s characters’ motivation within and reaction to their world, a world which is becoming increasingly foreign. Saramago’s stream-of-conscious prose, which excellently captures the rhythms of interior monolog and speech, is an ideal vehicle for his exploration of the personal lives of his characters.
The most endearing portrait is that of Cipriano coming to terms with his new role as an old man. For his entire life, Cipriano has earned his bread as a potter, but now he has been doubly-damaged. The Center has refused to carry his pottery, denying him worth as a craftsman. To compound that Marcal, his son-in-law, wants him and his daughter to move from their rural home to an apartment in the Center, which Marcal will soon be renting because of a promotion at his job as a security guard for the Center. Thus not only has Cipriano’s worth as an earner been dealt a mortal blow by his employer, but he must also submit to dependency on Marcal.
Saramago expertly captures the threat to Cipriano’s authentic, modest pride:
Just then Marcal’s shadow again appeared on the wall, I’ve brought you the good news we’ve been expecting for so long . . . I’ve finally been promoted to resident guard . . . Cipriano Algor opened his mouth to reply, but the shadow had already gone, what the potter wanted to say was that the difference between the word of a craftsman and a divine commandment was that the latter had to be written down . . . if [Marcal] was in such a hurry he could just bugger off, a rather vulgar expression that contradicted the solemn declaration he himself had made not many days since, when he had promised his daughter and his son-in-law that he would go and live with them if Marcal was promoted . . . Cipriano Algor was just rebuking himself for having promised to do something that his honor would never allow him to go through with when a new shadow appeared on the wall . . . Cirpriano Algor, I have come to tell you that we have just canceled our order for the clay figurines. (166)
This excerpt is from a dream Cirpriano has roughly halfway through the novel. In the dream, he sits on a bench in his kiln, contemplating his future, while the shadows of his son-in-law and a representative from the Center speak to him. The removal Cipriano feels from Marcal and the Center is highlighted by the fact that in his mind only the shadows speak to him, a clear reference to the shadows in Plato’s cave, which are only pale representations of the true nature of things. He is trying to work with Marcal and the Center, but he is failing on both counts, and part of that failure is that he can not truly understand either of them.
In fact, the character which appears to best connect with Cipriano is not a human, but his dog, Found, a stray who earns his name when Cipriano discovers him early in the novel. In one of the novel’s most touching scenes, Cipriano, now given to the inevitability of living in the Center off his son’s money, sits alone, debasing himself with hopeless tears, which, to a man of Cipriano’s generation, is unacceptably weak behavior.
The only new thing here is that he allowed a few painful tears to run down his cheeks, tears that had been dammed up for a long, long time . . . Found went over to Cipriano Algor to lick his tears, a gesture of supreme consolation which, however touching it might seem to us, capable of touching hearts normally not given to displays of emotion, should not make us forget the crude reality that the salty taste of tears is greatly appreciated by most dogs. . . . were we to ask found if it was because of the salt that he licked Cipriano Algor’s face, he would probably have replied that we do not deserve the bread that we eat, that we are incapable of seeing beyond the end of our own nose. There they stayed for more than two hours, the dog and his owner . . . (227)
Translating Found’s admonitions into words, the narrator is instructing us to not be fooled, that we are not to believe the apparent disconnection Cipriano feels and the seeming impossibility of a dog understanding human emotions. Just as there is a true connection between Cipriano and Found, there is a true connection between Cipriano and his daughter and his son-in-law. It is a connection that is far more important than the lost connection between the craftsman and his work, and if Cipriano and the book are to have a happy ending, he must discover the existence of these human connections. He must learn to appreciate them and derive happiness from them.
It is Saramago’s precise, warm exploration of Cipriano’s slow discovery of the love that surrounds him that is the best subject of The Cave. Although The Cave makes much of how modern capitalism turns us into the denizens of Plato’s cave (a la The Matrix), Saramago’s deeper, more interesting application of Plato’s metaphor is with regard to Cipriano’s relationships with his daughter, his son-in-law, the widow Isaura Magruda, and representatives of the Center. In some of these relationships, Cipriano succeeds in connecting, and in others he fails. Saramago is at his best when showing how or why these connections do or do not succeed, offering a wise, authentic investigation of Cipriano’s hopes and fears, which should keep readers satisfied in lieu of a gripping plotline.
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