SEEING

Jose Saramago
ranslated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa from the 2006 Ensaio sobre a Lucidez
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2006
ISBN # 13: 978-0-15-101238-1
307 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2010

In nearly all of Saramagoís novels he stops the flow of action and has chats with the reader. Saying things like: ďNow you may wonder, dear reader, why she did that . . .Ē and a small discussion will follow. I have always enjoyed that feature of a bit of chat with the author right in the middle of the novel. In this work he adds a most subtle and hilarious touch in dealing with the reader. I get this almost creepy feeling his is there in the room, and heís telling me a funny story. Heís gentle, clever and soft-spoken, but he canít help giggling softly at his own jokes, and sometimes a single sentence, some little quip, is just so richly funny that I, on my side, am guffawing out loud.

Yet the subject matter of the novel is in no way funny. Saramago just has a wry and witty way of dealing even with a very serious issue. But what is that issue? Thatís really never very clear in the novel, and that I liked. I think most would see it as a political satire or allegory, and it is that I suppose, but the very fact of how little detail his gives and how little resolution he offers, makes it more like there is a politically charged situation which he exploits for one of his typical stories.

The opening chapter is simply brilliant. It immediately took me back to so many other novels of Saramago. He constantly writes some impossible, unreal fantasy that is an allegory of something more real. But, he has this uncanny ability to both suck us in to get us to embrace this impossible fantasy, and yet make us wonder . . . well, is it or isnít it?

The first chapter is voting day and it begins with a detailed description of a typical poling place, which might have been almost anywhere in the democratic world. Except that it is raining a nearly fantastic rain. Then opening time comes to the polling place and no one comes. The people there blame it on the rain, but rain or no rain, the fact that not one single voter comes, well that is strange not only to them, but to us the readers. Hmmm, I wonder, whatís Saramago doing here?

This goes one for quite a while, all the way to lunch time which makes me think that, indeed, this is one of his wild fantasies again. Just when I think most readers would be thinking that, I certainly was, the unexpected happens and a first voter comes, and then, very very slowly a few others. Now I was confused. Okay, perhaps it was the rain; after all it was a very heavy rain and flooding and such, but now itís let up a bit, and itís already 4 PM, and now folks are coming out. Things are back to normal.

Thatís what he does to us. These imaginary, crazy worlds again -- he gets us completely off balance. Is this a realistic story, or something out of this world, again . . .

When the people at the polling place are tying to figure out what is happening Saramago even teases us with this explanation:

The ways of warding off fate are many and almost all are useless, and this one, forcing oneself to think the worst in the hope that the best will happen, is one of the most commonplace, and might even be worthy of further consideration . . .Ē

I think Saramago is simply a genius writer!

Oh me, chapter two is hilarious and brilliant. There has to be a rerun election since there was no decisive vote because of too many blank votes, a whopping 70%. The government is nervous and spying and Saramago does that so well. But what crime have the blank-voting citizens committed?

ď. . . it was arrant nonsense to take away the rights of someone whose only crime was to exercise one of those rights.Ē

The percent of blanks rose from 70% first time to 83% The party on the left even fell to a mere 1% of the ballot.

The central plot then, centers around what happens when there are so many blank votes, at least it seems this is an affront to democratic tradition and to be an attack not only on THIS government, but the whole system. Yet, as I mentioned above, thatís not quite the plot driver, or if it is, there just isnít any political stance or resolution revealed by Saramago. No question, like so many of us, he is very cynical about government in general being more interested in its own power than in public welfare, but that criticism seems to apply across the board to all societies in human history. Nothing about any particular government seems implied.

Soon there is a state of emergency, which is lesser than a state of siege, but serious. This puts newspapers in a bind since they canít criticize the governmentís action, and because of that people quit buying the newspaper. The action includes:

ď . . . complete with a curfew, the closure of theaters and cinemas, constant army street patrols, a prohibition on gatherings of more than five people, and an absolute ban on anyone entering or leaving the city.Ē

Soon the government decides to teach the people a lesson. What if they didnít have government? So the city council, and the nationís governmental offices which are in the capital, move out. They just steal away and seal the city in. Again, the people just do quite well without them.

What is marvelous in Saramagoís satire, is how he digs out the various little things that matter, little aspects of society that would go unnoticed and that people would never even think of imagining such a state of anarchy. He has a great eye for essentials.

ďsomething is happening that goes far beyond our understanding, that exceeds our meager experience, But we are behaving as if it were the same old bread, made with the usual flour and cooked in the usual oven, but itís simply not true.Ē

And then Saramago also gives us some hint of what is to come:

ďImpossibilities never come singly.Ē

Indeed they donít. That could be said not only of this wonderful novel but of virtually the entire series of Saramago novels. Lots of impossibilities made into gripping, serious and yet funny stories.

I highly recommend this novel.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu