Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Seeing by Jose Saramago

Seeing is typical of Saramago’s recent fiction. The setting is deliberately vague (there are occasional hints that he has Portugal in mind), and not even the characters have distinct names. As in Blindness, The Double, The Cave and All the Names, Saramago has shunned realism to create a parable for our times.

In form, also, Seeing bears the novelist’s characteristic imprint: paragraphs running uninterrupted for pages, rambling and loosely punctuated sentences brimming with sub-clauses and digressions, no indicators of speech. It is a style that takes some getting used to, and that may defeat readers not willing to let themselves be carried away by the prose’s elliptical, almost oral rhythm. Saramago’s fiction cannot be easy to render into English, yet Margaret Jull Costa (awarded the Weidenfeld Translation Prize for her version of All the Names) has once again done a remarkable job of making a verbose and convoluted text clear, precise and readable.

This moral fable, however, suffers by comparison to its predecessor. Whereas Blindness was compelling in its exploration of individual characters, and of the compassion and solidarity that can emerge from the depths of despair, Seeing feels like an over-long and ponderous attempt to ridicule the political system we deposit such faith in. Saramago’s novels have always been tinged by his political inclinations (he remains a card-carrying member of the Communist party), but his provocative swipe at electoral democracy does not quite take flight as a story. His characters are barely sketched in. It is hard to care much about them.

Saramago’s politicians are inept, paranoid or power-hungry caricatures for whom the preservation of status quo has become an end in itself: "Appoint a commission of inquiry at once, minister, To reach what conclusions, prime minister, Just set it to work, we’ll sort that out later."

His honest everymen, on the other hand, are heroic in their rectitude, and in their myriad acts of resistance to illegitimate authority. But, unlike the protagonists of Blindness, those of Seeing lack that essential ingredient of successful drama - moral ambiguity.

Saramago’s latest commentary about man in a state of nature may be worthy as political rhetoric, but it is decidedly disappointing as fiction.

You can find the review here

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