To read José Saramago is to explore the frontiers of human nature. In his novels we encounter unthinkable evil and unspeakable goodness, baffling incompetence and stunning persistence, deep despair and unbounded hope. In ''Seeing," his heartwarming and heartbreaking new novel, Saramago revives his technique of tossing an allegorical dilemma at a group of people, then sifting through the chaos for the best nuggets of being.
In his 11th work of fiction, the 83-year-old Portuguese Nobel laureate guides us again to the city where, in his 1995 novel ''Blindness," every citizen went blind but one. ''Blindness" describes an ineffectual government-ordered quarantine and a city that falls into a bloody, animalistic melee. Its seeing heroine, referred to only as ''the doctor's wife," guides six companions to safety with courage.
The story in ''Seeing" is not as horrifying as its predecessor's. Its crisis is political. During the capital city's elections, four years after the blindness epidemic, 83 percent of the ballots cast are blank. The government, flabbergasted and embarrassed, places the city under siege and relocates, sure that chaos will ensue and teach the ''subversives" a lesson. But the freed masses live on in peace, despite the government's rhetorical and physical efforts to incite turmoil. When officials receive a letter revealing a long-kept secret of the doctor's wife and suggesting that she might be behind the blank-vote movement, they seize on her as a suspect and send in a police superintendent to investigate. Their relentless certainty of her guilt ignites yet another underground movement to prove her innocence.
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