A review of Seeing by José Saramago

Reviewed by Bob Williams

by José Saramago
Harcourt Harvest Books
2007, ISBN 0-15-603273-5, $14.00, 307 pages

Saramago was born in 1922, struggled against the poverty of his background as the son of landless peasants who resettled in Lisbon to become part of the urban poor. After initial efforts in the form of one published and one unpublished novel, Saramago abandoned literature until the 70s when he began to write poetry and to work on papers as a critic. He has since written several novels and plays, some of which have served as the basis of operas. Throughout his career he has suffered the repressive atmosphere of the Portuguese political scene and now lives in the Canaries.

He is a Nobel Prize winner. This is a distinction that is sometimes undistinguished since it was never offered to many of the greatest writers and has been awarded too frequently more for unhappy political experiences than for merit.

Seeing is an ironic narration by a narrator who is sometimes ‘I’ and sometimes ‘we.’ The chapters are short and without conventional direct discourse. Saramago’s position as narrator is detached. He not only narrates, he comments on his narration. The opening scene is a polling booth. The rain is pouring in torrents and the voters do not come. When they do, they do so with mysterious simultaneity and the number of blank ballots cast is so great as to require a new election. In the new election the number of blank ballots increases and the president declares a national emergency. The psychological effect of this declaration ripples through the city. After the president’s speech, some “spent the rest of the evening tearing up and burning papers. They weren’t conspirators, they were simply afraid.”

The members of the government, whom Saramago displays brilliantly as cynical and not very smart opportunists, are unable to accept the blank votes for what they are, a gesture of no-confidence. The government wages war against its citizens. When its early attempts fail, it abandons the capital. It intends to bring the ‘rebels’ to submission by its depriving them of the protection of police and other services. The abandoned malcontents, the government expects, will soon encounter chaos and violence. To ensure that this will be so, it begins to sabotage the abandoned capital.

Government plans continually falter as its chosen instruments find them selves in situations that call forth their humanity. Placed in the environment of freedom, they begin to question the role of the government. Ultimately they refuse to be the tools of deceit and fraud and murder. First the leader of the town council walks away from his position, disgusted with the act of wanton sabotage inflicted in the city. Next, more importantly and in greater detail, a police superintendent rejects the effort to implicate an innocent person as a propaganda move on the part of the government. Saramago articulates the last truth when the superintendent tells his subordinates to “refuse to accept any lies in the name of a truth that is not your own.”

The title derives from the curious circumstance that four years prior to the events described in the story a plague that took the form of blindness ravaged the country. It affected the government members as well as the people at large. Everyone chose to repress the memory of this dreadful sickness, but the prime minister wishes to link it – even in a desperately metaphorical way that has more to do with a politician’s mind than with reality – to the blank vote movement.

None of the characters have names (except for the dog Constant). Saramago uses few paragraphs or periods although he is generous with commas. He uses them to separate speakers. These innovations do not make Seeing difficult to read. One must wonder how sacred or necessary punctuation is when we see so much of it so happily dismissed. He uses folk sayings and sayings like folk sayings. Some of these are marvelously apt and others are deliberately and mischievously baffling.

This is a vigorously told novel. There is wit in abundance, but Saramago never shirks the truth. This is a grim tale and Saramago’s focus, for all his pretence of indirection, is unerring and relentless. As a testament to our sad times and as a work of genius it is indispensable to the judicious and discriminating reader.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places