Jose Saramago’s Seeing

To read the first chapter of Jose Saramago’s new novel Seeing, is to experience a strong sense of déjà vu. As the novel opens, a group of more or less ordinary people are living out a more or less ordinary day. Then, out of the blue, something exceedingly strange happens to them. They don’t know what to make of it. At first they think it’s just an isolated incident, but by the end of the first chapter it becomes clear to them (and to the reader) that the problem is much more widespread. A national crisis of unimaginable proportions is beginning. And no has any idea what’s causing it. For the rest of the book this crisis will be fleshed out in painstaking and realistic detail. We shall follow the fortunes of a small group of people as they struggle to make it through this unexpected calamity. Along the way, human nature shall be exposed, questioned, explored.

Saramago has done this before. In Blindness (where the entire population of the country went blind) and in The Stone Raft (where Portugal itself broke off from the European continent and drifted out into the sea). In Seeing, the problem is political – 83% of the voters in a municipal election have cast blank votes – the very fabric of democracy is under threat. The government must respond swiftly and decisively to quell this ‘insurgency’, never mind that citizens have a legal right to cast a blank vote if they so choose. Investigations begin, interrogations are carried out, and soon the entire capital has been placed under siege by its own government.

But the people will not cave in so easily. Oppressed by authority, they will respond with exemplary democratic zeal. They shall protest non-violently. They shall maintain law and order even when the government is not around to enforce it. They shall, in other words, make authority irrelevant. But can this be sustained? Shall the Will of the People triumph, or shall the conniving politicians manage to win the day? As move and counter-move between the two sides plays out, we sit there in suspense, wondering how this crisis shall ever be resolved.

This sense of constant escalation is familiar from Saramago’s earlier novels. As is this theme of the spirit of the common people against the indifference or antipathy of the authorities. Does this mean that Seeing is formulaic?

On the contrary.

Saramago’s intriguing idea is to write a mirror-image of his own novel. A novel where the broad arc of the story is similar, but the content, the tone, the message are all reversed. Seeing is, quite literally, the opposite of Blindness. Where Blindness was mournful, Seeing is merry. Where Blindness was cynical, Seeing is naïve. Where Blindness focused on those left helpless by the calamity, Seeing is focused on those in power. Where Blindness celebrated the reluctant heroism of ordinary people in a harsh world, Seeing emphasizes the casual tyranny of leaders in an otherwise utopian one.

Unfortunately, this also means that where Blindness succeeded, Seeing fails. Blindness is a masterpiece – a Kafkaesque fable of epic realism, a novel that ranks up there, for me, with such works as Camus’ The Plague and Sartre’s The Reprieve. Seeing doesn’t come close. It almost feels as though Saramago was so impressed with the basic concept of the novel (which, it has to be admitted, is a delightfully clever one), that he does not feel the need to put any further effort into it.

For one thing, there are the characters. Saramago’s great strength has always been his ability to portray everyday human beings realistically, to create characters that are at once engaging and eerily familiar. Here, however, he largely avoids the common people, focusing most of his action on the country’s corrupt and self-serving political leaders, who never advance beyond being caricatures. Menacing caricatures, it is true, and occasionally funny ones, but still caricatures.

And there are other flaws. The plot is unconvincing and riddled with logical inconsistencies. The dialogue consists largely of tedious back and forth, mere banter that seems entertaining at first, but soon becomes boring. Even the descriptions of the calamity itself, done to such incredible effect in Blindness, are missing. Saramago has to consciously remind the reader from time to time that there is actually a crisis on, because the atmosphere in the book certainly does not suggest it.

Worst of all, though, Seeing lacks the imagination of Saramago’s other work; it’s audacity. Are we really to understand that Saramago can do no better than recycle half the characters he created for Blindness? That he can do no better than giving us four political leaders who, but for a few habits of speech, are practically indistinguishable from each other? That he can come up with no crisis less banal than this problem of the blank votes, which, if you come right down to it, is not that much of a crisis at all.

All this is not to say that Seeing is a bad book. Saramago is too talented a writer not to be engaging, and every now and then the book will take your breath away with an exquisitely imagined scene. But it is, on the whole, a disappointing book, one that does not do justice to what Saramago is capable of. It is a quixotic work, an attempt by Saramago to relive his own past glory. If you have never read Saramago before, this is not the book to start with. If you have read him, in particular if you have read Blindness, you probably do want to read Seeing, if only to see how Saramago inverts that earlier book.

Just do not expect too much.

[Originally posted at Hafta]