Saramago's characters - and readers - find new ways to see

Review Novel



JosM-i Saramago

Harcourt / 307 pages / $25

Once again, 1998 Nobel laureate JosM-i Saramago has given us a fable for our time.

Seeing, Saramago's new novel, is a sequel to his chilling 1995 novel Blindness, but one need not have read the earlier work in order to enjoy this one. Both books are, as is so often the case in allegorical Latin novels, set in the unnamed capital city of an unnamed country, with unnamed characters. Four years before the period in which Seeing is set, the city was afflicted by a strange epidemic of blindness. This epidemic left its residents not in darkness but blinded by an eerie, white luminosity. Here lies Saramago's metaphor: In Seeing, the white luminosity is not blindness but blank electoral ballots. The majority of city residents have refused to cast a vote for any of the three political parties, titled the party-on-the-left, the party-on-the-right and the party-in-the-middle, choosing instead to place blank ballots in the ballot boxes. Elections are held again, and again the blank ballots win an overwhelming majority.

The government, of course, views this as a subversion of the electoral process and is convinced that it is part of a vast conspiracy to topple not just the government but democracy itself. Unable to locate the source of the conspiracy, the government withdraws from the city, barricading all the roads out, under the assumption that the city will crumble under such a state of siege. But the city does not capitulate, and the prime minister and his Cabinet use the state of emergency to launch vendettas against each other at the same time that they use propaganda and terrorist attacks in an attempt to bring the city to its knees.

One individual, a doctor's wife, does not go blind. She is able to use her sight to help a handful of people survive the blindness epidemic. In Seeing, this same woman is accused by the government as the originator of the blank-vote conspiracy.

With the earlier blindness came anarchy and chaos, the citizens reduced to a dog-eat-dog existence. But in Seeing, the anarchy that overtakes the city is neither chaotic nor violent. The terrorist attacks are launched by the government; the citizens respond calmly. People continue with their daily lives and, aside from a few fender-benders, the city is able to operate without its police force. In fact, the lack of government does not seem to affect the city at all - it is the government that finds itself in the conundrum of being unable to govern.

Saramago novels are downright scary, known for their paragraphs that go on for entire chapters, without quotation or punctuation marks other than commas. Reading Saramago requires dedication, not unlike reading James Joyce or Marcel Proust. But, as with Joyce and Proust, Saramago's readers are rewarded at the end with a new way of looking at things, of finding the extraordinary within the ordinary world.

Seeing lacks the buoyancy that is the hallmark of Saramago's other novels, such as 1989's The History of the Siege of Lisbon and 1991's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Seeing is prosaic. Some critics will contend that, at 84, Saramago is losing his touch. But away from the rhetoric of the government ministers, Saramago's prose takes on its customary iridescence in describing the ordinary: "There is nothing but this luminous afternoon, neither too cold nor too hot, an afternoon that seems to have come into the world to satisfy all desires and to calm all anxieties."

Just as Blindness lent itself to several interpretations - as a metaphor for capitalism vs. communism, for AIDS, for ethnic cleansing - so too can Seeing be viewed as an indictment of any number of Western governments, especially the Bush administration or the Blair Cabinet. However, Saramago's refusal to name the city, the country or the characters underlines an important point: This could happen anywhere, to anyone, in any democracy. The prime minister notes that "in order for death to cease to exist, we would simply have to stop saying the word we use to describe it," and the same is true of government: All one has to do is vote.

Judith Redding is an experimental filmmaker and the co-author of "Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors."

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