Monday, December 31, 2012

100 Books #126 - Jose Saramago's SEEING

"...since the citizens of this country were not in the healthy habit of demanding the proper enforcement of the rights bestowed on them by the constitution, it was only logical, even natural, that those rights had been suspended."
Terrifying thought, isn't it? And an eternally fresh and topical one. And this is not some talking head pundit on one of the opinewz channels that infest American TV, but a Portuguese Nobel laureate describing the immediate aftermath of one of the most farcically awful political crises he could imagine for a proud Western democracy. And there's more, so much more, of this where that came from.

Last year, I twisted my mind into a pretzel taking in the odd but absorbing prose style of Jose Saramago's Blindness, and felt that I would never be the same again. And as I finish out this year, achieving my stated goal and then some in terms of number of books read in a year, I here prove that indeed, I am forever changed. Which is nice if you're going to read more Saramago.

Sing hosanna, my mind snapped right back into that pretzel shape. And good thing, too, because if I'd let myself get distracted by the difficulties posed by the prose style, I would have missed one of the most horrifyingly entertaining and terrifyingly funny reads of my life.

As the title might suggest, Seeing* is a sort of antithetical sequel to Blindness, though not strictly in the sense of the continuing adventures of a hero or heroine from the earlier novel. Indeed, the events and truths of Blindness are not even alluded to until rather far into Seeing; there is simply a strong sense that the early crisis here -- a general election held on a bizarrely stormy day not only has a disappointing voter turnout but also results in more than 80% of the cast ballots turning up completely blank -- is the aftermath of an earlier catastrophe, but the contemporary reader could substitute any recent disaster (Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, say) for the plague of "white blindness."

Unlike the unremitting tragedy and squalor of Blindness, though, Seeing has a pretty wicked satirical bent, especially in the early chapters when the parties on the left, middle and right are squabbling over for which party/candidate all those blank votes are "really" for, and government ministers are trying to come up with a solution to this crisis. One feels in their deliberations, in which the suspension of every civil liberty that First World citizens cherish is at least considered, one by one, echoes of the kind of panicky calculation and hapless cruelty that led to all of the white blindness victims' being herded into a disused mental hospital and left to fend for their helpless selves in Blindness, but here it's all taken much further. And the reader learns an important thing: Saramago is funny.

And yes, it's all but impossible, as matters escalate, to read Seeing without thinking of the Arab Spring, as what started as simply a casting of blank ballots develops into full-scale Gandhiesque passive civil disobedience and the government, for its part, makes an un-Arab-Spring decision to simply withdraw its services. No confidence in us, the officials seem to say? Fine. We have no confidence in you, either. Enjoy your lack of services. As an alternative to mass slaughter, it makes me wistful, that decision. But then things get silly, in a scary way (or possibly scary, in a silly way) when the government-in-exile basically just comes around to treating the "rebel" populace of the capital city pretty much exactly the same way it treated the disease victims in Blindness; this subversion is an infection that must be quarantined, but it would be heartless not to poke food in at them once in a while, wouldn't it?

And again, all of these vicious and brilliant insights into the nature of government and the responsibilities of citizenship, into the way people generally treat each other and into the way they could if only they would keep to their principles (ah, me), are delivered in Saramago's crazy and yet perfectly lucid** prose style. I don't know how he does it, you guys. Again, no dialogue tags or quotation marks, hell, not even any proper names, but the reader still winds up with a perfect insight into who all the characters are as individuals (even though they are known by only the most generic of referents) to the point where she can tell who is speaking even from just a fragment of dialogue. The only other writer I've seen come close to pulling this off is Theodore "Godbody" Sturgeon. But he broke everybody off into point-of-view chapters.

So in the end, Seeing feels rather a lot like a lost J.G. Ballard apocalypse, one in which the world is poised to end, not with a rush of wind or water or a crystallization or a drought, but with a refusal to participate, with apathy. Which, given Ballard's style of apocalyptic heroes, is very Ballardian indeed!

And on a purely personal note, oh, could I sympathize with those elected officials who had this crisis dumped into their laps. "The biggest mistake I made in my political life was letting them sit me down in this chair," the president says at one point. When I was a member of my home town's town council in 2001-2004, I said the same thing. All the damned time. Less so his next remark "I didn't realize at the time that the arms of this chair had handcuffs on them." But sometimes I did. Sometimes, I did.

All in all, a  horribly fun read. If ever there is a film adaptation, I demand it be directed by the likes of Richard Lester.

*Ensaio sobre a Cegueira in the original Portuguese. Portuguese isn't my best language, but I muddle through okay (not for a whole novel yet!) and so I get "Essay Concerning Sight" as a more literal translation. I guess I can see how that "essay" might throw an English-speaking reader, mislead him or her into expecting non-fiction, but remember that the word "essay" originally meant something more tentative, an attempt, the thought conveyed being that someone is playing with an idea rather than making declarations about it. And since this book is, in part, exploring the consequences of the prior novel's "white blindness", I like the "what if" quality the original Portuguese title suggests to me. But, you know, marketing.

Also, check out this cover for the Portuguese Spanish language edition! I love it so much!

**This despite some of the most convoluted sets of mixed metaphors I've ever encountered. But people do talk that way, especially when they're excited. How mimetic. Or something. Also, I read this book via my Kindle, as part of a single file that contains the Collected Works of Jose Saramago. I thus never had any idea how close I was to the end of the book, as the "percent completed" indicator stayed at the same number for chapters and chapters. With a dead tree book (which is how I read Blindness) there was a physical cue that the end was approaching. With an ebook as one of a single file of collected works, the ending sneaks right up on one and there is trauma. Aaah! This is, though, my only quibble with ebook reading so far.


  1. Sorry but that is not a Portuguese edition of José Saramago' "Seing", but a spanish edition. The original title of that book (in portuguese) is "Ensaio sobre a Cegueira"!


Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.