Saramago, José Entries



I found it useful to think about José Saramago's Seeing as, not so much a sequel to his earlier novel Blindness (though it takes place in the same unnamed European city, four years later), but as, fittingly enough, its photographic negative. Whereas Blindness is a brutally dark story with a glimmer of hope toward the end, Seeing is a wickedly funny satire—a much lighter tone overall—but with a crushing bit of darkness at its close. Whereas Blindness does not hesitate to explore the vilest brutalities that humans perpetrate on each other, Seeing is oddly civilized—but while Blindness shows the reader the deep compassion and humaneness that can come out of hardship, Seeing implies that our more noble instincts might be beside the fact, an irrelevance in the face of the huge, facilely idiotic machine of national government. Having just finished Seeing, I'm left pondering which is the more pessimistic book: certainly Blindness spends more of its pages being viscerally difficult to read, but I can't help privileging their respective endings: in the one case, hope for a small band of individuals; in the other, the casual destruction of those individuals to suit the petty whims of clueless officials.

Seeing is a kind of political fable: the night after the election, an unnamed European government finds that 77 percent of the population of the capital city has cast blank votes. Alarmed, they declare a mistake and organize a second election (complete with reconnaissance agents stationed casually in line at voting booths to intercept any information about the supposed blank-vote conspiracy), and everything seems perfectly normal except for the now 83 percent of capital-city voters who cast blank ballots into the box. The government interprets this action as an "attack on democracy" and reacts with a steady stream of increasingly restrictive measures, none of which seem to do a bit of good or extract a modicum of information. Beginning by declaring a state of emergency and suspending all constitutional rights in the city (a change none of the citizens seem to notice), they progress to sending intelligence agents into the populace (no one is interested in talking about the blank votes), and detaining a random sampling of citizens whom they hold indefinitely for interrogation (everyone refuses to say who they voted for). As the citizens' dignified non-participation holds steady, the government gets more and more ruffled, eventually choosing to abscond absurdly in the dead of night with all its officials, police, paperwork, assistants, computers and assorted detritus and declaring a state of seige on the capital city, forbidding anyone to enter or leave before the government has received a tearful apology from the city at large.

Saramago's satirical ear is delightful fun to read, particularly the scenes in which the ministers of the various national departments squabble pointlessly while trying to decide on a course of action:

Sounds a bit odd to me, said the minister of culture, to my knowledge, anarchists have never, even in the realm of theory, proposed committing acts of this nature and of this magnitude, That, said the minister of defense sarcastically, may be because my dear colleague's knowledge dates back to the idyllic world of his grandparents, and, strange though it may seem things have changed quite a lot since then, there was a time when nihilism took a rather lyrical and not too bloody form, but what we are facing today is terrorism, pure and unadulterated, it may wear different faces and expressions, but it is, essentially, the same thing, You should be careful about making such wild claims and such facile extrapolations, commented the justice minister, it seems risky to me, not to say, outrageous, to label as terrorism, especially pure and unadulterated terrorism, the appearance in the ballot boxes of a few blank votes, A few votes, a few votes, spluttered the minister of defense, rendered almost speechless, how, I'd like to know, can you possibly call eighty-three out of every hundred votes a few votes, what we have to grasp, what we have to take on board, is that each one of those votes was like a torpedo striking below the water line, My knowledge of anarchism may be out of date, I don't deny it, said the minister of culture, but as far as I'm aware, although I certainly don't consider myself an expert on naval battles either, torpedoes always strike below the water line, they don't have much option, that is what they were made to do.

The above is a good example of Saramago's style in both of these books: phrases strung together with commas into long uber-sentences, characters designated by function rather than name, and dialogue marked by simple capitalization. Personally, I like reading him regardless of the content, but I think his narrative oddities work especially well to tell this particular story: Seeing, after all, is all about the mechanized aspect of human society, about how the slot we fill defines our relationships to other slots and therefore, but only tangentially, to other people. Only if we are very conscientious or very lucky can we manage to connect with another human AS another human, rather than as a function of her and our respective slots. Saramago's decision to mingle the dialogue into a single flowing stream of words seems to me to fit with this idea: the conversation above, for example, could be taking place among any ministers of culture, defense, and justice—petty squabbling and a greater or lesser respect for such concepts as hawkishness, the rule of law, wit, and individual prerogative, is likely to exist in any cabinet meeting. The event (the conversation) transcends, in some way, the individuals taking part in it, just as the reader's eye sees first the undifferentiated block of text, just as the epidemic of blank votes seems to transcend any individual voter or, indeed, any individual conspirator.

Saramago plays with these ideas incessantly: it is interesting to watch the characters who change throughout the book, and to note whether their designators change as well. In one case, the city council leader becomes disillusioned with the absent government and quits his post, becoming "the former council leader." His crisis of conscience results in a change of designator, although only in a negative sense: he doesn't become "the head of the resistance" or "the activist," but continues to be defined by the job he has chosen not to do. Later on, the police superintendent and his two assistants argue over whether to call a given suspect "the prostitute," "the wife of the man with the eye patch," or "the girl with the dark glasses." Readers of Blindness, who are familiar with this character as "the girl with the dark glasses," may feel like they "recognize" this appellation as her true identity: it is, in any case, more judgment-neutral than referring to her as a prostitute, and more respectful of her self-hood than designating her only by who her husband might be. I was rooting for "the girl with the dark glasses" to win out as title—which is funny, since in the novel Seeing she never appears with dark glasses at all. All this brings up interesting questions about identity: does someone who has known a person longer, necessarily know them better? When does a name, title, or designation no longer apply? What makes one mode of reference preferable to another? Are some experiences, such as the events of Blindness, so formative that, even though this woman no longer wears dark glasses, there is still some innate "rightness" to referring to her by that title?

As much as Seeing is preoccupied with the mechanistic, it does also acknowledge the soulful aspects of human existence, and I felt that Saramago interwove just enough moments of desperate honesty between individuals, so that his book gained depth and weight. I particularly loved his passage toward the beginning, in which a female interrogation subject has just proved to her interrogator the worthlessness of the government's lie detectors. "It's all your fault," he says, "you made me nervous,"

Of course it was my fault, it was the temptress eve's fault, but no one came to ask us if we were feeling nervous when they hooked us up to that contraption, It's guilt that makes you feel nervous, Possibly, but go and ask your boss why it is that you, who are innocent of all our evils, behaved like a guilty man, There's nothing more to be said, replied the agent, it's as if what happened just now never happened at all. Then, addressing the technician, Give me that strip of paper, and remember, say nothing, if you do, you'll regret you were ever born, Yes, sir, don't worry, I'll keep my mouth shut, So will I, said the woman, but at least tell the minister that no amount of cunning will do any good, we will all continue to lie when we tell the truth, and to tell the truth when we lie, just like him, just like you, now imagine if I had asked if you wanted to go to bed with me, what would you have said then, what would the machine have said.



I am strangely and strongly drawn to stories of quarantine. Any novel involving a small group of people forcibly detained in each others' company due to mysterious or shocking circumstances unfailingly engages my interest. From Albert Camus' The Plague to Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries to William Sleator's House of Stairs, something in me can't resist examinations of what happens to a small group of people when they are sealed away from the rest of society, left alone to establish their own order and parse the mysteries of their segregation. Needless to say, therefore, I was drawn to the premise of José Saramago's Blindness: an inexplicable epidemic of highly contagious blindness sweeps over a modern European city, and the authorities quarantine the newly blind in a decommissioned mental hospital. The blind are left to more or less fend for themselves, and their descent into degradation is witnessed and ameliorated by the one person who inexplicably keeps her eyesight: an intrepid woman known only as "the doctor's wife." Meanwhile, as the internees struggle to hold onto their humanity under adverse conditions, the entire city around them is also going blind, and the central band of characters must eventually confront the deepening chaos outside the asylum's walls.

Blindess turns out to be one of the more masterful, and definitely one of the most disturbing, portraits of quarantine I've read. In the tradition of Lord of the Flies, its vision of humans in a state of nature shows them - some of them, at least - devolving into cruel and tyrannical beasts, exercising brute strength to exploit those around them. It also, though, explores the complex struggle to maintain and simultaneously revise one's moral code in the face of inexplicable catastrophe. Interestingly, it may be the single sighted character who most alters her ideas of morality, recognizing that after what she has witnessed, the old rules no longer apply. I admired Saramago's subtlety on this front: recognizing that the rules have changed did not mean, for the central characters, abandoning all morality, sense of obligation, or definition of right and wrong. Rather, it was an acknowledgement that such a cataclysmic change as sudden blindness changes the person, and even more the society, to which it happens. Even the clichéd proverbs in the characters' mouths morph throughout the novel to reflect their new condition, and their thought processes even more so. At one point, another main character asks the doctor's wife if she loves her husband:

Do you love your husband, Yes, as I love myself, but should I turn blind, if after turning blind I should no longer be the person I was, how would I then be able to go on loving him, and with what love, Before, when we could still see, there were also blind people, Few in comparison, the feelings in use were those of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of others, not as the blind people they were, now, certainly, what is emerging are the real feelings of the blind, and we're still only at the beginning, for the moment we still live on the memory of what we felt...

This passage gives a sense of Saramago's quirky narration style, which took a bit of getting used to, but in the end I found quite effective at communicating the suddenly-blurred boundaries that characterize the lives of the newly-blind. It also showcases the novel's preoccupation with "the person [one] was" versus the person one has become, and the process whereby the transformation occurs. One of the things I liked about Blindness was the way in which the epidemic mutated, but did not erase, the personalities and values that existed in the sighted world.

One thing potential readers should know is that Blindness deals explicitly and lengthily with brutal rape. I'm pretty skeptical of the contemporary penchant for including rape scenes in fiction where they seem unnecessary or - god forbid - masturbatory, as many do, so I was on the alert during this darkest, middle section of Blindness. I have to say, though, the rape scenes here needed to exist. They are the logical conclusion of the blind bullies' descent into brutality, and Saramago gives us enough of a moment-by-moment account that we truly understand the terror and anguish they perpetrate. In their inhumanity, they are oblivious to the humanity of others, which is just one of the levels on which the "blindness" allegory functions in the novel. So too, witnessing and being subjected to the rapes is a turning-point for the main character; it forms the final breaking-point for her between the old rules and the new. Afterwards, her outlook has shifted, and she is capable of doing what she must do to survive, and to help those around her do the same. The scenes, therefore, performed several symbolic and plot-furthering purposes, and I finished the book feeling that they were integral to Saramago's larger vision. Nonetheless, those with their own sexual trauma might want to approach the novel with caution.

Several sound-byte reviews claim this novel as an allegory of "the events of the century"; I assume they are referring primarily to the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic. And it is certainly relevant to both of those catastrophes, or to any set of events, this century or earlier, in which a sudden sickness or disaster has swept over and radically changed a society. But it's also enjoyable as a story in its own right, or as a parable of our everyday condition. In the middle of the novel one of the main characters, an old man with an eyepatch (half-blind, therefore, even before the epidemic's onset) encourages a group of inmates to share the circumstances under which they went blind. There is an intriguing hint that the state of blindness - or obliviousness - is caused by the thought or fear of blindness, as in the cases of the pharmacist's assistant, who goes blind upon hearing of the epidemic and fearing for himself, the museum patron whose last vision is of a painting of a horse with bulging, fearful eyes, the car thief who rightly imagines that his victim's blindness will infect him, and the old man himself, who goes blind in the act of lifting up his eye patch to look at his missing eye. Such a causality is appealing: all we have to fear, as the man said, is fear itself, and so on. By obsessing on ourselves and our own vision, we become blind. Yet there are enough counter-examples to throw this theory into doubt: the girl who went blind at the moment of orgasm, thinking of nothing but her own pleasure; the woman who goes blind while pressing the button of an elevator; and, of course, the first victim of the epidemic, who goes blind while stopped at a traffic light and would have had no reason to be thinking about sight or blindness at the time. Here we have the human search for causality, juxtaposed with the ever-present possibility that all these events are random, impersonal. Then there is the even more disturbing idea that, as the doctor's wife theorizes at the end of the novel, this social blindness has been an integral part of the human condition all along:

Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.

(Blindness was my first novel for the main Orbis Terrarum Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography