“Man never sees things themselves, but always only their shadows”, Plato once philosophized in his allegory of the cave. And before Saramago’s hero turns his back on the shadow on the wall of the cave and finds the exit from the cave, he must fear, doubt and hope for a long time – and the reader does so with him.
Cipriano Algor, the name of that “hero”, is 65 years old and runs a small pottery with his daughter Marta in a Portuguese village. He sells his plates, mugs and jugs to “the center”, a modern giant shopping center in the nearby town. One day, a Friday the 13th, when he drove to the center’s underground garage to deliver his goods at the loading ramp, he didn’t have a good feeling, and that was soon to be confirmed: the head of department informed him that a new type of practical plastic tableware was being distributed the market had come and his services were therefore no longer used. Cipriano’s world starts to falter. But he and Marta don’t want to give in so easily, they develop a plan: From now on they will make clay figures, clowns and nurses, one or the other will be used for such rustic-traditional room decorations! The plan appears to be working; the center places a new delivery order for a small army of mini-golems. Ultimately, however, a customer survey should decide the fate of the figurines and thus the existence of the pottery. Cipriano Algor rushes to work.
In his new novel, José Saramago describes David’s struggle against Goliath, a small, insignificant potter who bravely defends himself against the omnipotent center, the epitome of capitalism. He impressively designs the image of the monstrous temple of consumption, which is far more than a simple shopping center. It is a residential complex, a hospital and an amusement park including simulated natural events, it has “such an endless list of miracles that even eighty idle years of life would be enough to use this whole offer, even if you were born in the center and the outside world would never have seen “. A city in the city without daylight – but with air conditioning.
Saramago’s strength is to immerse the reader in his stories. You always have the feeling of standing one step behind Marta on the potter’s wheel or sitting next to Cipriano on the stone bench under the mulberry tree. You share your hopes and doubts, your fears and desires. The characters live from their humanity.
A present narrator comments on the action. With a penchant for detailed descriptions, he occasionally breaks through the narrative to provide explanations or to analyze the behavior of the protagonists. This means that the reader is dependent on the narrator until he turns back to the story. Unfortunately he occasionally gets lost in details and wanders a little very far from the action. So sometimes you have to wait patiently until he shakes your hand again and pulls you back in history.
The characters’ dialogues and thoughts are sometimes so well woven into the narrative flow that it is sometimes difficult to filter out who is speaking. The minimalist structure with just a few paragraphs and the lack of verbatim speech can hinder the flow of reading. But whoever reaches for Saramago probably knows the complex style of narration of the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner and is happy to accept it, because there is hardly anyone who can avoid the likeable characters. A shot of irony shouldn’t be missing in the 80-year-old’s new work, of course: after Cipriano Algor has been robbed of any livelihood, the head of department advises him “Use your luck” – and he seems to be really serious. The old potter apologizes again “for causing so much damage to the center,” and he too appears to be serious. The center is strangely direct when it announces on gigantic posters: “We would sell you everything you need, if we did not prefer it, you would need everything we can sell you”. With such small swipes, Saramago caricatures our consumer-oriented society. The newest attraction that the center has to offer is – you can hardly believe it – the “Original” Plato’s Cave. But the reader can rest assured: Cipriano Algor will find his way out of the cave to daylight.