It would have been difficult to time this week’s read any more perfectly. As the political debate season (and by season, I mean solid year of campaigning) heats up, I just so happened to dive into a book whose central conceit is a capital city in which 80% of the voters have cast blank ballots, throwing the electoral process into chaos and resulting in the government’s wholesale abdication of the city and investigation into what the politicians consider a large-scale conspiracy. Throw in a Michele Bachmann or two and it might as well be present-day.
I first discovered José Saramago a few years ago, when I read Blindness for a book club. Saramago fans will remember Blindness as the story of a city whose entire population goes blind, save one woman who uses her inexplicably retained sight to protect her husband and a group of strangers while they’re stuck in the insane asylum where they’ve been forcibly quarantined (they were sent there when the government still thought the epidemic could be controlled through isolation). Mark Ruffalo fans will remember Blindness as a 2008 movie with an all-star cast and a really disturbing rape scene. Me, I remember it both ways–as a dedicated reader of socio-political Armageddon-type novels, and as the girl who once followed Mark Ruffalo around a Tower Records for 20 minutes (discreetly…ish.)
Seeing is in many respects a sequel to Blindness, not only in title but also in the government’s suspicion that the woman who did not go blind during the epidemic (now four years in the past) may have something to do with the decision on the part of most of city’s population to cast blank ballots. Whether or not those suspicions are correct I’ll leave to you to discover.
Seeing also harbors many of the same themes as Blindness, namely the downfalls of government, and of a political system more focused on party loyalty and winning elections than serving the people (Saramago satirically names the political parties the party on the right (p.i.t.r.), party on the left (p.i.t.l.) and party in the middle (p.i.t.m.). But with respect to people themselves—in Blindness, the population resorts to looting, violence and anarchy—Seeing is more forgiving: the citizens of the capital city enrage their political leaders by failing to fall into chaos once the government, including the police force, leaves. In this way, Blindness’ sequel is much more of a commentary on government than human nature; it is at times funny, insightful, thought-provoking, snarky and downright depressing. Saramago, whose writing is translated from Portuguese, could be talking about any government, anywhere in the world. Coupled with his tradition of refusing to name locations or characters, the anonymity of the novel makes it universal.
Given its poignancy, and the sheer genius of the concept, it’s hard for me to admit that I struggled with Seeing. Blindness had a level of suspense and danger that made it more gripping than its relatively slow-paced sequel, which is a tough pill to swallow for an author whose style includes few paragraphs breaks (one for every 2-3 pages) or periods (2-3 per page.) While some books can make 50 pages seem like five, more than once I was surprised to discover a solid hour of reading had only moved me forward in the novel incrementally. Put bluntly, it never felt like enough happened.
The true strength of Seeing is in the details: minor conversations between public officials, brief descriptions of passersby in the city, omniscient tangents from the narrator. What the novel captures best of all is politicians, whose conversations never revolve around keeping the people safe, but rather alternate between deciding how to win back the city and who will take credit for said victory. It’s a sad state of affairs that those passages hit a little too close to home.
José Saramago died last June (don’t worry, he was 87) and although I’m not in love with his writing style, I would be lying if I didn’t say his work has enormous staying power. There are scenes from Blindness I could describe in detail today, just as I’m sure certain elements of Seeing will be with me years from now. In the way 1984 and Brave New World need no chronological or geographical context, neither does Seeing. The corruptions described in the novel aren’t Portuguese or American; they’re human. I’m grateful to have read something that captured them so well.
There are a lot of books I’m considering as part of the next 12 months’ unavoidable emphasis on political theater: For one, I’ve somehow managed to never read Animal Farm. Also on the list are the various memoirs or nonfiction titles from 2012’s roster of
crazy people candidates (it’s to be determined if I can stomach anything Rick Perry has ever written). But while I think it’s important to read up on the specifics of an electoral pool of opponents, I think it’s in many ways more effective to read books like Saramago’s. Sometimes it takes a separation from the specific—from type of government, name of political party or “patriotic” sense of “exceptionalism”—to see the cracks in the political foundation, or better yet, to see the potential ramifications of continuing down a certain path. In Blindness, Saramago showed what might happen when people lose control. In Seeing, he shows us what it’s like when they gain it back.
AUTHOR: José Saramago
PAGES: 307 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Blindness, Death with Interruptions
SORTA LIKE: 1984 meets Catch-22
FIRST LINE: “Terrible voting weather, remarked the presiding officer of polling station fourteen as he snapped shut his soaked umbrella and took off the raincoat that had proved of little use to him during the breathless forty-meter dash from the place where he had parked his car to the door through which, heart pounding, he had just appeared.”