East of Eden
Jonathan Ree reviews Fallen by David Maine
Publisher Jamie Byng recently launched an international series of novels aimed at giving a new lease of life to ancient myths. From a literary point of view, these were not easy assignments. The process of transposing terse ancient fables into the fussy, psychologising idioms of the modern novel creates tricky problems of tone and technique. But Jamie Byng, who has the backing of dozens of publishers producing simultaneous editions in many languages throughout the world, is still pretty bullish, and boasts that he will be ready to publish the hundredth novel in the series in the spring of 2038. Meanwhile some admirers in the press have claimed that he is masterminding a triumphant 'rebirth of myth' in a culture that has all but lost its soul to science and secularism.
The latest addition to Jamie Byng's series is Fallen, in which the novelist David Maine – who has already published a book about life on board Noah's Ark – reaches right back to the first four chapters of Genesis and pulls out the schematic story of what is, for many people of faith, literally the world's first family. The biblical outline is as sparse as a haiku: the grief and terror of Adam and Eve after they have been thrown out of the Garden of Eden, followed by the bewildering arrival of their children, beginning with Cain and Abel, and then an unspeakable horror as Cain, enraged by the spectacle of young Abel's guileless good fortune, turns on his little brother and batters him to death.
The Bible tells the story of Cain in little more than a hundred plain words – words that are probably unsurpassed in world literature as an evocation of the immediate sensation of guilt. Cain is assailed not so much by remorse and regret as by shock, incomprehension and idiotic denial and disbelief. He knows he cannot hide what he has done, or shift the blame for Abel's death onto anyone else, but he cannot help acting dumb and flapping around with irrelevant excuses. ("Am I my brother's keeper?" he asks defiantly, although he must know that the only possible answer is "You certainly should be!")
If you have never in your life done anything catastrophic and unforgivable, you may struggle to see the point of the story. But to anyone else it is bound to ring loud bells. We will recall asking ourselves what on earth we have done, when we know the truth perfectly well, and we will remember casting around for excuses before becoming convinced that nothing half so awful has ever happened before. And the fascination of the Genesis story, as Maine shows with considerable panache, is that Cain really can regard himself as the first criminal in history.
He has no gallery of heroes or villains to act as prototypes for his own misdeeds, and no means to invoke precedents or make comparisons. His mum and dad have told him, with some embarrassment, that they themselves were created fully grown, so Cain knows that before becoming the world's first murderer he was also the world's first human child. It is hardly his fault if nothing has any historical depth for him, and in his unusual case, the feeling that everything is happening for the very first time is no more than the literal truth.
The total absence of backstories gives Cain's life an extraordinary narrative weightlessness, which Maine captures by the clever but simple device of telling the whole story backwards. He starts with Cain as a weary old man, slowly regressing across 50 years to his notorious moment of madness somewhere east of Eden, and beyond that to his difficult relations Adam and Eve, and the book ends right at the beginning with God banishing his favourite creatures and leaving them to fend for themselves.
All of us are able to console ourselves, when we set out on the adventures of love, mourning or parenthood, with the knowledge that our ancestors over hundreds of generations have undertaken the same uncharted journeys. But when we try to imagine Adam and Eve, we are dealing with figures for whom there could never be any such reassurance. Maine's account is suffused with quiet amusement, and he has fun describing the perplexity of the first human couple when Eve grew as fat as a pregnant cat – was she going to disgorge a litter of kittens, a batch of eggs, a leggy lamb, or simply a heap of stinking excrement?
Once Cain is born they have to make up the principles of childrearing as they go along, but they do have the decency to tell their children their own sad story, in an edited form. But their revelations only betray them into prolonged family quarrels, the kind that are dreary and hackneyed to us, but fresh as paint in the context of Fallen.
The kids have a powerful riposte whenever Adam chastises them: "God banished you and Mother for disobeying him, right?" they say defiantly. But the parents also have a thought-provoking excuse: "You have to remember", Eve says, "when we first started out we knew nothing at all. Nothing."