José Saramago has a taste for alternative realities, for the use of fiction as a form of speculation. In one of his novels (The Stone Raft, 1986), the Iberian Peninsula breaks off physically from the rest of Europe and floats away into the Atlantic. In another (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1991), we read a detailed account of Christ’s inmost thoughts. In yet another (Blindness, 1995), a sudden affliction unknown to science robs a whole population of its sight. There is a political edge to all these stories, and more than a hint of allegory. But none of them is as openly political as Seeing, Saramago’s new novel, first published in Portuguese in 2004. In the other works things inexplicably happen to people; in this one people are what happen to a whole country, and especially to its capital.
The novel opens with an elegant deception, a form of bluff. There is terrible weather in the city on election day; no one is showing up at the polling booths. Perhaps no one will come at all, and this will be the country’s first election with absolutely no votes cast. But the weather clears up, and people start voting even in the rain. Absence is not the problem. The problem is the votes themselves: 13 percent for the party on the right, 9 percent for the party in the middle and, 2.5 percent for the party on the left. The rest of the votes, more than 70 percent, are blank. The government, in consternation but still clinging to the constitution, has the mandatory second election the following week. This time 83 percent of the votes are blank. The people of the city have not abstained from voting, and they have not spoiled their ballots. They have not written in candidates. They have democratically objected to the particular form of democracy on offer.
This is not, of course, how the government sees it, and the press dutifully follows the government’s line. One editorial writes of a “dissolute use of the vote.” The minister of the interior speaks of the need to make the populace “realize that the unfettered use of the blank ballot paper would make the democratic system unworkable.” The first half of the novel recounts the government’s unavailing maneuvers in the face of the situation. Thinking the problem is confined, or can be confined, to the city, they declare a state of emergency in the capital; then a state of siege; then the government and all governmental services except firefighters leave the city; then the city is sealed off. The government blows up a railway station, hoping the citizens will blame it on terrorists and/or foreign agitators. The citizens see through this at once. The government’s next hope is that a huge, peaceful demonstration will turn sour or violent, and the press does everything it can to encourage this possibility. The demonstration remains peaceful.
At this point the government receives a letter that sends its ministers back to their memories of the plague of blindness in the same city four years earlier—and that sends the readers back to Saramago’s earlier novel. The letter reminds us that one woman, closely in contact with this highly contagious disease, retained her sight throughout the epidemic. Isn’t this suspicious, the letter-writer insinuates. Could she be behind the new epidemic, the refusal of democracy as we know it? The government, always on the lookout for stories of conspiracy, thinks this is worth investigating and sends three undercover police officers back into the city. The second half of the novel reports on their adventures. I shan’t reveal the ending, which is both entirely predictable, given the unfolding logic of this novel, and deeply shocking all the same. All I shall say is that one of the policemen has a change of heart about his job and resigns. And that the novel ends with a dialogue between two blind men. Who are they? Just two blind men, or the first outriders of a return of the plague?
And what exactly is the relation between Seeing and the earlier novel about blindness? How is voting symbolically like losing your sight? Do the blank voters resemble blind people in any way? Well, yes, if you’re a leader of one of the parties that are being ignored. And yes, if you’re a suddenly powerless government. But what if it’s the government who resembles blind people? This is the argument offered by a dissenting Cabinet minister. Then the voters would be seeing clearly, and the connection between blankness and blindness would vanish. Saramago’s titles (in Portuguese literally An Essay on Blindness and An Essay on Lucidity) play subtly on these contrasting possibilities, and on one page of Seeing,the two key words face each other resolutely. The prime minister says “the blank vote is as destructive a form of blindness [cegueira] as the first one,” and the minister of justice replies, “Either that or a form of clear-sightedness [lucidez].” Then he resigns.
Where are we in this novel? At one moment the president of the country addresses the “men and women of Portugal,” but the narrator rushes in to say that this location is an “entirely gratuitous supposition.” He adds that the Portuguese are known “for having always exercised their electoral duties with praiseworthy civic discipline and religious devotion.” This is fairly complicated mischief, since the second sentence includes an ironic reference to the dictatorship that ruled Portugal for so long, and has a little anti-clerical flip in its tail. But the overall point is clear and challenging. These events have not happened in Portugal, or anywhere that boasts of being a democracy. But perhaps they should. We could think the government’s sinister reactions in this novel are a warning to would-be radical democrats; but Saramago almost certainly wants us to think they are a sign of how much that radical democracy is needed.
Saramago’s skillful translator Margaret Jull Costa shrewdly renders “lucidity” as “seeing,” and drops the word “essay” from the two titles since Saramago’s joke will hardly carry across into English. These are novels, not essays. But they do glance at the essay form. The people in these works don’t have names, only roles: the minister of justice, the doctor’s wife, the policeman, the officer of the polling station, and so on. Their exchanges of speech are marked only by commas and upper-case letters; no quotation marks, no line spacing. Both characters and dialogue are clustered into social forms, as if a whole culture were talking and acting through its most identifiable representatives. And the ostensible organizer of all this is Saramago’s narrator, a friendly, garrulous sort who apologizes for his digressions and his use of overfamiliar idioms and regrets at one point that an “explanation did not prove to be quite as succinct as we promised.” Yet he can be sharp, in his slightly fussy way, describing a man as “sleeping the sleep of the just, as people used to say in the days when they believed that the just existed.” Here is how he records a conversation between police officers:
If there’s no guilty party, we can’t invent one, Are those your words or the minister’s, Oh, I doubt they’re the minister’s words, at least I don’t remember having heard him say them, Well, sir, I’ve never heard them all the time I’ve been in the police…
This is the essayist as satirist; the novelist hides behind the essayist and wonders what we think.
I’m making the method sound rather abstract, and certainly the tone of the work is strange; a kind of domesticated alienation effect, Brecht made bureaucratic. But the irony is too firm and funny, and the characters too engaged with their fates and those of others, for the work to feel abstract as we read it, and in a paradoxical movement, people become more individual because they have only their roles and their language to mark them. “What we dream also happens,” the doctor’s wife says to a policeman. He replies, “Hopefully not everything,” and she asks him if he has a particular reason for saying that. He has, but he denies it. A little later he wonders whether the doctor and his wife, who must see him as their enemy, are sure they really want him to stay for lunch. Yes, they’re sure. “And you’re not afraid I might be tricking you.” The doctor’s wife says, “Not with those tears in your eyes, no.” It’s hard to see how the allocation of proper names could make this scene more intense or these people more human; indeed, proper names might subtract something, invite us to miss the way the sheer humanity of roles and speech and action may take us beyond our names, our ready-made psychological or civil identities.
In a famous poem, written in East Germany in 1953, Brecht quotes a contemporary as saying that the people have lost the trust of the government. Would it not therefore be easier, Brecht slyly asks, to dissolve the people and have the government elect another one? Saramago’s novel is a parable of what happens when neither government nor people can be dissolved.