José Saramago - Seeing
The evening before José Saramago died, I fell asleep after reading several chapters from his 2006 novel, Seeing. The next morning, I woke and carried the novel to my study where, while holding it in my hand, I first read of his death. Such melancholy coincidences are not greatly uncommon, and it would be unwise of me to add any great meaning to such an event – but nonetheless it saddens me to learn that Saramago has died. He was a writer of great wisdom, one who had largely abstained from publishing fiction until in his fifties, when his voice, which required sobriety, restraint, certainty of observation, dignity, the ironist's sharp scalpel and the satirist's gift for laughing savagery, had matured.
Seeing, then, is a loose sequel to the novel Blindness, which won him great acclaim in the English-speaking world in the late 1990s, when it was first published. Blindness remains one of the more harrowing novels I have read, while managing to end on a clear note of hope for the future. In it, the citizens of an unnamed country are afflicted with a disease the spreads at first slowly, and then with alarming rapidity. It makes it's suffers blind, their eyes clouded over with a milky whiteness. Seeing takes place in the same country, but this time the problem is one of democracy and government. On the day of an election, officials are puzzled to learn that the vast majority of the votes handed in are blank:
The number of valid votes did not quite reach twenty-five per cent, with the party on the right winning thirteen per cent, the party in the middle nine per cent, and the party on the left two and a half per cent. There were very few spoiled ballots and very few abstentions. All the others, more than seventy per cent of the total votes cast, were blank.
Another election is held a few days later, and this time, even more of the votes are blank. The government, having lost its mandate (or at the very least, its mandate was not renewed), loses confidence and threatens to collapse. The government, and the prime minister, view the blank votes as an act of terrorism, a hammer blow to the heart of democracy. Their line of reasoning is that it is, of course, allowed that a person should throw away their vote by 'donkey voting', or handing in a blank piece of paper, but it is an anathema to think that the majority of citizens would vote this way. It shows apathy on a level never seen before, a wholesale rejection of the democratic process and the conceit that each of us has a duty and obligation to participate in the smoke and mirrors of choosing one ill-suited person to government, or another. The government views their citizens as deeply hostile, and,
While the prime minister was appearing on television to announce the establishment of a state of siege, invoking reasons of national security resulting from the current political and social instability, a consequence, in turn, of the action taken by organised subversive groups who had repeatedly obstructed the people's right to vote, units of infantry and military police, supported by tanks and other combat vehicles, were, at the same time, occupying the train stations and setting up posts at all the roads leading out of the capital.
Saramago's fantastic situations tend to create pockets of instability, and Seeing is no different. In Blindness, the government sought to quarantine those who had gone blind to prevent them from spreading the disease, which had the consequence of the prisons becoming dens of iniquity, with widespread debauchery and violence, and women reduced to currency to pay mini-warlords for food and protection. In Death With Interruptions, the protracted absence of mortality cause panic, financial collapse, and vast social disruption (though, clearly, no deaths). Seeing continued down this path, but, at times, the government's reactions aren't quite as believable as in the other novels. The prime minister and his cabinet react too quickly, and too fiercely, to the blank votes, interpreting a wound as a mortal blow. One wishes Saramago had continued for longer the to and fro of government-citizen communication, but it is only fifty or so pages in and already the government has abandoned the capital to its own lawlessness.
Time passes, but the expected chaos does not emerge. The people, largely unconcerned as to which name is in charge of their country, and which party, be they left, right, or in the middle, holds power, simply go about their day to day lives. Nothing changes. But the government is in ruins. It is experiencing a crisis of confidence, and seems to be in its death throes.
One of the great strength's of Saramago's work is that, while the collective may be punished, or comes to harm, or suffer from a catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude, the individual, one in each of his later novels, finds redemption, wisdom, and understanding. Saramago stretches a concept to its limit to see what will break and finds that everything does – everything, that is, except for the individual. The system cannot hold, whatever the system is; Saramago shows us that hierarchy, conformity, the abstract force of government, corporation, and collective will, are fallible, and must inevitably tumble. In their construction lies their ruin, and for democracy and the democratic forms of government, this ruin comes about when people for whatever reason they choose, elect to displace themselves from the process. In Seeing, the individual in question is the superintendent as, over time, he rejects the government and instead chooses to believe in, without sounding too sentimental (a trap Saramago happily does not fall into), himself, his heart, and the importance of doing what's right over what is expected.
As with much of Saramago's work, character names are absent and are instead present as either titles (prime minister, superintendent, etc), or descriptive terms (the doctor's wife, the woman with dark glasses, the old man, etc). Added to this, dialogue is not marked in any meaningful way, and punctuation is kept to a minimum. To give an indication of this, consider the passage below. At first, it might be difficult to differentiate the speakers, but after a few lines, the rhythm of the dialogue emerges, and the understanding of which character is talking at any given time becomes clearer.
The superintendent paused, glanced again at his watch and went on, At nine o'clock tomorrow morning you are to be at military post six-north with all your belongings, Why, asked the sergeant, You've been taken off the investigation that brought you here, was that your decisions, sir, asked the inspector, grave-faced, No, it was the minister's decision, But why, He didn't tell me, but don't worry, I'm sure he's got nothing against you personally, he'll ask you lots of questions, but you'll know what to say, Does that mean you're not coming with us, sir, asked the sergeant, No, I'm staying here, Are you going to continue the investigation on your own, The investigation is over...
And on it goes. Paragraphs are lengthy, and may stretch over several pages. Saramago slices his novel into untitled chapters, which function as breaks in the events, but also work, surprisingly, as cliff-hangers. Saramago's writing is careful and methodic, without given to great flashes of vigorous energy, and yet, looking back, it is remarkable just how much happens and how much violence and death there is. He has a way of looking into the face of evil and hate without flinching, and what's more impressive, is able to share his observations calmly. The barrier between civility and anarchy is thin and brittle, and Saramago's gift, among many others, is that he is able to explore this difficult terrain, and report accordingly.
During the last half of the novel, as the government further loosens its grip on the citizens they expect to fall into murder and rapine but who don't; at this juncture, Saramago introduces at first one, and then a number of characters from the novel Blindness. These people, now with different descriptors (for we must remember that Saramago rarely uses names in his stories), adopt, as their importance to the story progresses, in Seeing the same names they had assumed in Blindness. Saramago is very much winking at the reader here, and in much the same way it can be satisfying to witness, in a movie sequel, the reconnection of old characters, there is a great deal of satisfaction in experiencing the reuniting of the motley crew of people who survived, together and lead by the doctor's wife, the terrible blindness from a few years earlier (An astute reader will also notice, at this time, a reference to talking ceilings, which alludes to another of Saramago's works, All the Names).
But does it work? And here I am not so certain. The doctor's wife, who was the only person in the country not to become blind, is accused, in a convulsion of repellant government logic, of masterminding the current plague of blank votes. The inspector heading the investigation does his duty because that is what a policeman must, but his heart isn't in it, and he finds himself too easily able to see through the machinations of the prime minister and his underlings. The government wants a scapegoat, and why not one woman who was already shown herself exceptional in an equally disastrous situation? While Saramago clearly sets up the doctor's wife as someone the government wants to blame so they can regain control of the situation, and not actually as some quasi-mystical force persuading millions of people to refrain from voting, the connections between the two novels never really mesh. The doctor's wife could as easily have been the plumber's wife and in no way connected to Blindness, and the novel would have worked as well, but that she is from Blindness adds certain expectations for interconnectivity and metatextuality that Saramago seems unwilling to deliver upon. This is particularly perplexing consider his earlier masterpiece, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which have strong post-modern elements to it, and which, by virtue of its plot and central conceit, comments on the trappings of fiction and the inherent instability of literature. The novel closes on two tragedies, one genuinely shocking and unexpected, the other seemingly placed for added effect and to aid in tying Seeing and Blindness closer together. For me, this second tragedy is cheap and doesn't work, and in fact dramatically lessens the impact of the novel.
This final criticism, though significant, should not serve as the coda to this review. Seeing, along with José Saramago's entire body of work, is too good, and too unique, to leave on too down a note. At its lowest, Seeing still stands far above much of the ordinary, the petty, the small and the unambitious novels of the last few decades. Saramago is unafraid to take on the big, unsolvable questions inherent in humanity and inextricably linked with the societal and political systems within which we live. His novels are riddles, complex puzzles which examine the fundamental structures of regular human existence and ask the question, what if? What if death, for a short while, vanished from our lives? What if everyone was to become blind? What if Satan, and not God, was the compassionate one, and what if God, and not Satan, chose to sacrifice his son not for us, but for the enhancement of his own glory? What if a portion of a nation simply broke off and sailed into the sea? What if the lives of unknown others is more than simply a collection of data, not just a vast catalogue of births and deaths? What if, what if, what if? What if everyone stopped voting, and without war, without protest, without clamour, simply elected to refrain from elections? What would happen, then? Saramago may not have everything exactly right, but his depth of understanding into the human condition suggests that he may know a thing or two about these insoluble questions. An outstanding writer, Saramago's death is a great loss to literature. His novels deserve to be read and enjoyed for many years yet – if you've never read any of his works, don't wait too long to discover a truly tremendous author.
(Original Title: Ensaio sobre a Lucidez)
||Margaret Jull Costa
Other works by José Saramago under review:
---Death With Interruptions
"who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality"
-Nobel Prize in Literature 1998 Citation
About the author
José Saramago was born in Portugal in 1922. Among many other awards, he was presented with the Nobel Prize in literature in 1998. Saramago died in June, 2010, aged 87.