Citizenspeak

Book cover
Seeingby José Saramago, Trans. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa

Harcourt 307p $25

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If Franz Kafka were to rewrite the British television comedy “Yes, Prime Minister,” the result might resemble José Saramago’s new novel, Seeing. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist weaves wry, sardonic humor into his dark parable of an unnamed nation locked down by fear of terrorism from within, featuring governmental bureaucrats who at first seem to be mere bunglers, but in time reveal themselves to be truly violent, dangerous leaders. Saramago’s voluble narrator presents the story as both Platonic dialogue and political thriller.

Seeing builds on Saramago’s 1990 novel Blindness, which described a city ravaged by a plague of blindness and the subsequent descent into savagery by government and citizens alike. A woman who somehow escaped being struck with blindness in that earlier novel resurfaces in Seeing as the target of a government investigation into two rather bizarre elections. In the elections most of the citizens of the capital city turn in blank ballots, and the government interprets the actions of the so-called “blankers” as a dire threat to democratic stability.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that 83 percent of the voters cast blank ballots, since José Saramago is 83 years old—these voters seem to represent the accumulated wisdom of the author and his skepticism about government in our times. The blank ballots suggest that the populace cannot see any candidate or party worthy of support. Saramago’s narrator speculates, “It really seemed as if the majority of the city’s inhabitants were determined to change their lives, their tastes and their style.”

Saramago writes pitch-perfect dialogue for the government officials as they ponder what the blank votes mean. They respond at first with bromides that disguise the depth of their paranoia but then initiate surveillance measures designed to parse and probe citizens’ seemingly innocuous remarks. Finally, the government decides to withdraw from the capital in the dead of night, surrounding the city with troops and declaring first a state of emergency, then a state of siege. Besieging its own people in the name of national security, the government itself becomes isolated and besieged.

In this tense atmosphere an anonymous accusatory letter triggers an investigation of the woman who did not lose her sight in the earlier plague of blindness. As the investigation moves ahead, the novel’s focus shifts to the superintendent of the inquiry and his debate with his conscience over whether to cooperate in the rigged investigation.

Thus Saramago presents three levels of people acting on behalf of the state—the ragtag group of officials supervising elections at a local polling station, the country’s cabinet ministers and high officials, and the team of three police agents dispatched on the mission to find and frame the innocent woman. At first the government ministers seem more soporific than sinister, and the national media conveys the perfect symbol of the state in “the national flag flapping lazily, languidly, as if it were, at any moment, about to slip helplessly down the pole.” What is slipping away in a more urgent sense, however, is the moral integrity of the government and the people’s civil rights.

The three police agents have something of the Keystone Cops about them, and the leader must phone in his reports under the embarrassing code name “Puffin.” It’s all puffery, Saramago seems to say, but with ultimately very real and disastrous consequences, a form of “pre-emptive justice” in which the government identifies and persecutes innocent people.

Seeing is a sobering political fable likely to engage anyone who fears that government, in the name of fighting terrorism, may become a state that terrorizes its own citizens. Saramago also alludes to a moment in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness when the character Kurtz utters his emblematic last words, “The horror! The horror!” One of Saramago’s responds, when a bomb explodes in a metro station, “Horror, horror….” But while Conrad presents the words as a wrenching cry of modernist alienation, Saramago offers the same words spoken in a subdued murmur of resignation to the costs of living in an age of terror.

Saramago’s literary style in this novel will not appeal to everyone, primarily because his paragraphs typically run to a page or more in length, and he presents dialogue without quotation marks. In one sense, all of the novel’s action takes place in the mind of the narrator, who both presents the action and offers amiable commentary along the way. The narrator takes us, in effect, through an extended Platonic debate about crucial issues in contemporary politics. His characters are functionaries or place-holders for ideas; we never know their names, only their functionary titles, such as “interior minister,” “superintendent,” or “the woman with dark glasses.” This technique reinforces Saramago’s view that ordinary people lose their individuality when government confuses the preservation of its own power with the obligation to maintain authentic security.

Saramago has a foundational faith that people will find a way to make their collective will known, and he believes that the citizenry needs to monitor very carefully the internal conversations of the government, rather than the other way around. Ultimately the citizen’s individual conscience proves primary for Saramago, because it is the site of one’s “contract with humanity” that predates the obligation to any other human community. “Seeing” becomes a high moral obligation for Saramago, then, and one must work hard and risk all to retain the clear vision of one’s conscience when government grows near-sighted or blinded to the effects of its actions.

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