‘Seeing’ by José Saramago (1922 –2010)

Now and again, it is possible to come across a book that instantly launches itself to the top of one’s ‘to read’ pile. This happens most frequently in the ‘For Sale’ section of my local library, where children’s stories, Wild West adventures, history, fantasy and romance stand shoulder-to-shoulder with award-winning works by European and Asian authors whose novels rarely achieve the publicity-status they deserve. Sometimes this may be because they have not been translated into English. In the case of Jose Saramago, though, there is no lack of multi-lingual versions of this Nobel Laureate’s work.
‘Seeing’ is a novel published in 2004, a few years after its ‘prequel’, ‘Blindness’, which is about a society most of whose population become blind and where the ‘powerful blind’ of the institution they are housed in terrorize the ‘weaker blind’. I have not yet read ‘Blindness’, but it has been described as a microcosm of the abuse of power and the immorality that seems endemic in those who have fought their way (or been voted) to the highest positions in the land.
‘Seeing’ is about the same group of people, some years later. Who it is and what is seen does not become clear until some way into the story, but what is clear is that the corruption and abuse of power of those in charge is recast under a different set of circumstances.
It is election day in an unnamed city. The people charged with manning the polling-station are waiting for people to arrive. For most of the day, no-one does. Then, after a rainstorm when the custodians of the ballot-boxes have almost given up hope, there is a surge of voters: everyone is relieved. When the votes are counted, however, it becomes clear that 87% of voters have returned blank papers. This throws the council into a panic.
They are forced, by the rules, to hold a second vote a few days later, and the results are even worse. From then on, the panic of the government takes the form of recriminations against the population. A State of Emergency is declared, the government absconds (for security reasons) and barriers are set up to prevent the population from leaving. A curfew is put in place, but even the emergency services and the police are withdrawn, so that the potential for lawlessness is increased. Soon, spies are sent in to find out who specifically did not vote, and why; but we gradually become sympathetic to one police superintendent whose feelings for the people begin to override the demands of his task. From there, events darken further and reach a shocking (but, in a way, unsurprising) conclusion.
There is little punctuation and almost no paragraphing in this book. Description, speech, thoughts, speculations, are spun out together: it takes patience to pursue the first part of a tale that may or may not reward the reader. The temptation is to read quickly, ignoring the subtleties, simply because the customary visual signposts are missing. But slow down, appreciate the shifts of tone, viewpoint, import, and the rewards are there. The tension is deftly managed so that the police-superintendent’s situation, beginning, is at does, with the impression that he is simply just another tool of repression, changes into one where he becomes the victim, and his conscience is unable to influence the behaviour of his superiors.
In his Nobel Laureate acceptance-speech in 1988, Saramago said that he works ‘to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures.’ Indeed.

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