Final Sale: Everything must go!
When an old potter finds his work rejected, he must discover a new way to turn his life
José Saramago wouldn't shop at Kmart even if Martha Stewart offered to decoupage his Nobel Prize. The unrepentant communist from Portugal has just released "The Cave" in English. It's the most deeply affecting critique of consumer culture since "Brave New World."Skip to next paragraph
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Saramago sketches a near future in which the efficiencies of capitalism have conspired to produce The Center. It's the ultimate corporation - as though the good people at Monsanto had finally managed to crossbreed the Pentagon and Disney World.
He describes the size of The Center with a kind of mock Old Testament precision, its dimensions piling up to suggest an incomprehensibly large and constantly growing residential shopping mall that provides every product, service, entertainment, and employment. (Two years ago, the author expressed a similar anxiety about these massive organizations with his depiction of the Central Registry in "All the Names." Kafka's dread seems to have outlived the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.)
The Center stays in the shadowy background of his simple story, but evidence of its boundless growth and voracious appetite is everywhere. The lifeblood of neighboring towns and villages is gradually draining into this commercial vortex, leaving only dry husks outside its enormous walls. The message is easy to see. It hangs above the highways "in letters of brilliant intense blue: LIVE IN SECURITY, LIVE IN THE CENTER."
But for a 76-year-old potter named Cipriano Algor, that's not an attractive invitation. He still lives with his daughter and son-in-law in one of those vague antiquated places outside The Center, making pots and dishes as his father and grandfather did. Every week, he packs the rickety truck with his wares and joins a long diesel caravan of manufacturers to deliver his merchandise at The Center's subterranean loading dock.
Saramago's ear for bureaucratic language suggests that he's spent half his life at the Department of Motor Vehicles. His parody of redundant office workers, the petty tyrants who speak only in the phrases of contracts and regulations, is so witty and disheartening that you'll dread your next encounter with Sprint customer service even more.
But Cipriano is a savvy man. He can't afford to offend these worker bees who hold an exclusive contract on his pottery. Besides, he's still wedded to the old-fashioned notion of real communication between people, a kind of graciousness and candor that catches the loading-dock officials off guard - charming some, annoying others.
One day, without warning, an assistant manager of reception announces that they'll take only half his regular order. "Sales have fallen off a lot in the last few weeks," he explains brusquely. "We'll probably have to return anything of yours that we've got in the warehouse too." Cipriano is stunned. He assumed The Center would buy his wares as regularly as sunrise, never realizing that his livelihood depended on the fickle tastes of cash-strapped consumers.
Plastic crockery is "so good that it looks like the real thing," the assistant manager explains, "with the added advantage that it's much lighter and much cheaper."