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."
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."
"But that's no reason for people to stop buying mine," Cipriano protests unreasonably. "Earthenware's earthenware, it's authentic, it's natural."
For most people interested in the small, disruptive effects of globalization and corporate monopoly, the dark comedy of "The Cave" will prove more illuminating than reams of economic analysis. Even Saramago's pinko reputation doesn't cast the rose-colored glare you might expect. His novel isn't a Marxist critique of consumerism so much as a heartfelt lament.
Naturally, Cipriano reacts badly to this loss of employment, the first setback his steady though tepid career has ever faced. He feels like "a cracked bowl which there is no point in clamping together." But the narrator is the first to admit that the old man "bears some of the blame for this himself" because he failed to anticipate the changing tastes of his customers and adopt the latest methods of manufacturing.
Encouraged by his daughter and the arrival of a stray dog (whose thoughts are marvelously transcribed for us), Cipriano decides he's not too old to learn new tricks after all. He throws himself into a mad week of learning and retooling to make ceramic dolls.
This hardly seems like a surefire scheme for economic revival. But when The Center places an order for 1,200 of his little mud people - in one week! - he confronts an entirely new problem for small-time manufacturers.
The Adam and Eve myth is clay in Saramago's crafty hands, the material for wise commentary about the nature of creation, labor, and artistic expression. Indeed, what's particularly remarkable about this novel is what beauty he can form from such ordinary matter.
In this tiny family, he manages to capture so much tenderness and tension, the perfectly realized dynamics of two generations with wholly different expectations. The frustration and respect between son-in-law and father-in-law develops with particular care. His narration is a fine dust that reveals the fingerprints of even the lightest emotional contact in the small moments of domestic life.
Ultimately, there's no effective resistance to The Center and the scrambling economic force it represents - except for the permanence of family relationships and little revolutionary acts of kindness.
This tender, allegorical story would be reason enough to read "The Cave," but what truly elevates it to something essential is Saramago's style; this fantastically agile, irrepressibly funny, sympathetic, cerebral, and sometimes even corny voice. Throughout, he interrupts his tale to discuss the process of storytelling, calling into question the conventions of fiction, mocking his characters' foibles even while cradling them in his affections. He lulls us into easy interpretations only so he can foil them later on.
This is a novel that seems prematurely aged with the luster of ancient legend, but it addresses a future we face.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to firstname.lastname@example.org.