Sometimes a novel comes along that is terrifying only because the reader can't decide why he should be scared. Jose Saramago's latest political allegory Seeing is just such a tale.
The Portuguese Nobel Prize laureate has again produced a singular work of dark humour and near absurdity, one that raises disturbing questions about the nature of democracy and the relationship between the government and the governed.
Taking place four years after the events described in his novel Blindness, Saramago's Seeing opens on a rainy election day in the unnamed capital of an unnamed country.
The voting turns out badly for the incumbent party. Although it wins the elections, more than 70 per cent of the ballots cast are blank. After a second round of elections produces more than 80 per cent blanks, the government declares a state of emergency.
Having lost its political legitimacy but without having been elected out of office, the government must decide how to deal with this paradoxical situation.
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Saramago's prose is still a wordslide, hardly any full stops or paragraphs to block its flow, with an energy that carries you through the curious asides, the bits of writerly intervention - usually. It demands constant attention; even in an interrogation scene, a mid-paragraph comma may be all that announces a quite new speaker. It's as though we were listening intently to a fireside performance, naive and wise all at once, which is a high moral claim: the fable maker, who sometimes mumbles and sometimes does voices. But we're also reading a text by a very self-conscious writer, who will break the spine of a book - this book, in fact - with a long reflection on how he's got no idea at all of how to end it.
This has produced wonderful stories where the written word is at least as powerful as anything mundane; Saramago was a literary critic, a cultural editor, long before he made a living out of novels. In All The Names we meet a bureaucrat who hoards documents, and who follows a paper trail to the woman who fascinates him. In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, a proofreader has the power to change history. The central character in Saramago's glorious The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is one of the alternate identities of the poet Fernando Pessoa: so Saramago breathes life into someone else's literary invention. And in his gospel, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, the old atheist is playing with another book: the New Testament.
There's a context of the mind to all these books, and a sense of the physical which absorbs you: Saramago does rain like no other European writer. In many cases he's engaging with Portugal's very odd and sad history: what seems magical may be actual fact. But in the past decade or so, in book after book, he's been throwing all this away. The Saramago of the years since he won the Nobel has been hungry for followers, not just readers.
Me, I think the rot set in with the oddly old-fashioned fable, The Stone Raft, in which all of Iberia drifts away from Europe to find its own place in the world. The notion's worked out ingeniously, but it's all too obviously a big idea on which Saramago grafts some people and some action. He wants a Portugal which can afford to be separate, away from Europe and America, a notion which would have cheered the heart of the old dictator Salazar - as long as he didn't read too carefully.
Saramago was in exile by now, a cross old man in Lanzarote, distant from the Lisbon streets and the grand monuments of Portugal. The distance showed. In Blindness, a whole city slowly goes blind, only one woman left with sight, and the streets fill with crime and fear and anarchy; it's as high concept as any George Romero zombie movie, to which it comes embarrassingly close at times. But sometimes, when the story is anchored to streets you can imagine, ruins you know, you find yourself crying.
Now, in Seeing, we have the rest of that story. It's set in Lisbon, obviously, and in Portugal, more or less; but Saramago doesn't want to say so. He's gone away somewhere nameless, non-specific. The characters, if that's the word, are called Prime Minister and President and Interior Minister, Superintendent, Inspector and Sergeant. They make good abstract nouns.
There's no passion from a writer who was once most passionate. Saramago can't have heroes any more because he has no hope. He has a kind of heroine - the one woman who never went blind in Blindness, who did away with a rapist nobody else could see - but she's there to accept her victimhood in a proper, stoic way. And this is ironic since he's covertly arguing that others should do as his city does, follow Lenin to the barricades one more time against bourgeois democracy, and the only reason he can imagine is habit.
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