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A Chilling Parable

Josť Saramago's The Cave

A beautifully written tale by a man that obviously loves words as much as his characters love their clay, Josť Saramago's The Cave is a pleasant relief. It is refreshing to read an author that genuinely likes his characters and doesn't have to use sarcasm to pique our interest in their lives.

When the characters speak, Saramago seems to be orchestrating a game, sparring back and forth with words. While this form works well, at times it can be confusing as to who said what. However, the importance seems to rest more on what is said rather than who says it. Saramago's long paragraphs and minimal punctuation pull the reader in close to his beloved characters, who have been dropped against a purposely bleak, ever increasing, urban sprawl.

In The Cave, the Algor family has lived and worked crafting their own small pottery for generations when their sole distributor, The Center, decides that their handmade plates and mugs are too outdated. In order to save the pottery, Ciprano Algor and his daughter Marta try to entice The Center with a new decorative product, clay dolls. Despite early successes, there are warnings that the Algor's economic solution will not be easy.

At the center of their problems is The Center: a behemoth shopping center, living quarters, and community center all rolled into one. The Center takes the horrors of planned housing communities and homeowners associations to the extreme by combining them with extreme capitalism. The Algors are forced to agree to The Center's unfair supplier's agreement, which states that suppliers cannot sell to anyone but The Center, leaving the family's economic future dependent on the whim of a statistic-obsessed buying department.

Eventually, due to the promotion of Marta's husband, Marcal, the family moves to The Center. The move allows Saramago to further explore the artifice of The Center, such as the homes with windows that can't be opened, virtual fish tanks, and generic furniture. It is a world where everything is sanitized and generic, where a controlled artificial version is always favored over reality.

As the tale progresses the Algors discover disturbing secrets about The Center that leave them, and the reader, reeling. Like Plato's parable of the prisoners in the cave, having seen reality and gained consciousness the Algors lives are changed forever.

The most chilling aspect of The Cave is the similarity between the artifice in The Center and our own consumer world. The advertising campaign for The Center reeks of mind control yet is realistic enough to provoke similarities between the slick advertising we are confronted with from Target, The Gap, and other corporate giants. Similarly, the market domination by The Center brings to mind our own domination by corporate giants creating an eerily accurate tale in the tradition of Kafka, 1984, and Brave New World.

The Cave
by Josť Saramago
Harcourt; ISBN: 0-15100-414-5
Hardcover, 320 pages (October 2002)