Novel of the week

The Cave

Jose Saramago <em>Harvill Press, 352pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 1860469981

The Cave is an extended metaphor, an entire novel that is developed from Plato's allegory of the cave from Book VII of The Republic. This is indicated at the beginning by the title and the quotation from The Republic that introduces the novel: "What a strange scene you describe and what strange prisoners, they are just like us."

It is only at the end, however, that the reader will be reminded of the allegory when the potter Cipriano Algor stumbles into a material realisation of Plato's cave. It is as much a revelation for the reader as for Algor, who finally understands the illusions under which he has been living. While Saramago's previous novels often languish and fade as they come to an end, The Cave has a decisive shape and clarity to the ending. The discovery of the cave is the final piece that makes the novel perfect and enlightens everything that has gone before.

The style will not surprise anyone who is familiar with Saramago's work. Swift interchanges, random thoughts and digressions merge into long, parenthetical sentences. A miniature of the novel itself, the diverse parts of each sentence fall into collusion as they end. The plot is simple and involves a handful of protagonists: the ageing Algor; his daughter, Marta; his son-in-law, the security guard Marcal; and the widow who becomes his lover, Isaura. One could add two more: the dog Found and the Centre, the amalgam of state and commerce and leisure, the megalithic skyscraper which presides over the region. It is more metaphysical than political, more in the manner of Borges than Orwell, an image of the inexplicable that governs our lives and remains beyond our understanding. The landscape, prima facie, seems futuristic: there is the Green Belt, the Industrial Belt, the shanty towns, no man's land, the buildings on the outskirts of the city and, in the middle, the Centre itself.

The Centre buys and sells the potter's wares. Suddenly, there is no more demand, owing to the advent of unbreakable synthetic crockery. With his daughter, Algor then starts on a new project, manufacturing ceramic figurines. There are six prototypes: a clown, a jester, a nurse, a mandarin, an Eskimo and a bearded Assyrian. Surprisingly, the Centre likes them and orders a huge quantity. Later, however, following a survey which reveals a lack of interest, it has to cancel the order.

One evening, Algor goes down to the basement of the Centre, where excavations are taking place. There he discovers the cave. He sees the six human figures sitting on their bench, their necks and their feet tied so that they cannot turn around, the ashes of a fire behind them, a wall in front. This is a replication of Plato's cave. Once he has seen it, the potter sees the illusions under which he has always lived and worked - and has no choice but to turn away from it.

This, in fact, is what Socrates argues will happen if any prisoner leaves the cave and is enlightened. He cannot return, for the world of shadows and images can be of no interest. This world is, necessarily, the limit of the prisoners' minds. In Plato's allegory, the prisoners are chained by their necks and feet and seated on a bench. Behind them is a fire. In front of the fire are carried objects. The images of these objects are projected on to the wall in front of them. They see these images and nothing else. Everything that occupies their minds is of the nature of shadows. Furthermore, they cannot but believe that these shadows are real and comprise the only reality. Their condition is one of perpetual illusion. For Plato, this is a metaphor for our knowledge of universals, something that the prisoners in the cave can never begin to conceive: they live with the shadows of illusion, and that is all.

The potter realises that this is how he and his family, all men, the Centre, and the world, live. His son-in-law sees the cave, comes to the same conclusion and leaves his job. Together with Marta, they leave the Centre and return to the old pottery on the edge of town. There they collect Isaura and Found. They drive away in a van, on a journey with no destination. It is an elegant ending.

Henry Sheen has just completed a novel set in Lisbon