by Menachem Feuer
With courage and aesthetic flair, JosT Saramago avails himself of a radical type of skepticism in his latest novel, Seeing, in an attempt to find some vestige of authenticity in a world that has become inundated with deceit. A sequel to his international bestseller, Blindness, which explores human tendencies toward compassion and cruelty in the midst of a bizarre and devastating epidemic, the effort to dispel every kind of certainty in Seeing is an 'eye-opening' counterpoint. Seeing offers a corrosive indictment that targets language¨the sort used by governments, and the author's own. Saramago intends, at once, to shake our faith in those who are politically in charge, and in those who insist that art has the power to shield us from their mendacity.
Like Blindness, this novel takes place in a time period much like our own and in a first world country that isn't identified but is familiar to us. Whereas in Blindness, the central problem, an epidemic, is overcome, Seeing opens with a predicament that is less devastating but ultimately more unsettling. An election in the capital city is interrupted by a rainfall of Biblical severity. After the rain lets up, only a fraction of the population shows up to vote. Because of the odd circumstances, a new election is held a week later. This time, despite a large voter turnout, the government is shocked to discover that 70 percent of the ballots are blank. As in Saramago's previous novel, where blindness spreads like a disease, infects everyone, and disappears for no apparent reason, this bizarre situation¨jokingly referred to as the "blank plague" by the Prime Minister¨cannot be explained.
Rather than letting this strange event simply pass like some incomprehensible phenomenon, the government uses the blank ballots as an opportunity to strengthen its grip on power. According to the government, the blank ballots are a threat to democracy, and democracy must be protected with both the army and the government's own brand of rhetoric.
The only characters in the first part of the book are government officials. The omniscient narrator recounts how they deal with the blank ballot crisis. To heighten our awareness of the misappropriation of language by government representatives, the narrator devotes more than one third of the book to these discussions. We're left with a clear understanding of the ways in which language is manipulated for political aims. By creating a false sense of danger, the government is able to rationalize the imposition of a "state of siege". The narrator's sardonic account of these discussions casts language in an entirely untrustworthy light: "The stories that were told, not always sotto-voce, explored the well-known theme of hunter hunted or biter bit, but did not restrict themselves to such childishly innocent comments, to the humor of a belle Tpoque kindergarten, there were a kaleidoscope of variations, some of them obscene and, from the point of view of the most elementary good taste, reprehensibly scatological."
Although the narrator's voice, in its sarcastic assessment of these discussions, seems to be the best defense against such hijacking of language, he nevertheless points out that the use of satire in a state of siege seems futile. "Unfortunately . . . all sarcastic remarks, lampoons, burlesques, parodies, satires, and other such jokes which people hope wound a government" cannot change the state of affairs. Indeed, in the first half of the novel, Saramago concedes that rhetoric, in the hands of those who control the media, decides the political reality.
The narrator's flippant recounting of the government's discussions borders on the nihilistic. The "state of siege" that the government institutes through its own withdrawal, and through the withdrawal of the police and the military, is altogether ridiculous, even as a literary premise. It alerts us to the possibility that the narrator himself may be playing a trick on us by attempting to convince us that such a situation could actually occur. This causes us to distrust not only those who 'govern', but also those¨artists and intellectuals¨whose self-appointed duty is to provide an honest, unobstructed picture of the circumstances.
Then, in the middle of the novel, Saramago suddenly shifts perspective. Whereas the first third of the book shows that the corrupting influence of politics undermines any optimistic view of literature and the human capacity for decency, the last two thirds of the novel present a less cynical view of language as a means of portraying reality. To accomplish this sea change, Saramago creates a Christian passion play of sorts, complete with villains and a hero/redeemer.
The villains are the government officials from the first part of the novel, though it is only later that the full extent of their villainy is exposed. In a revelatory moment, the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister, think they've discovered a link between the epidemic of blindness, which happened four years earlier, and the "blank" movement. This connection is purely a rhetorical one: the two government officials view the current situation, with no one confessing to anti-government activity, as mass denial; in other words, self-inflicted blindness. This absurd conjecture becomes the basis for their new campaign against the population.
After receiving a letter that appears to confirm the link between the two "epidemics", they devise a plot, aiming to give the blank movement a face. The letter, written by a person who knows the heroine of Blindness, argues that she, the only person not to have been affected by the plague of blindness, is behind the blank movement. This sets up the structure of the passion play: the innocent woman becomes the Christ figure (a scapegoat), the writer of the letter is Judas, and the government represents Pontius Pilate.
The hero who will save her from the evil government plot is a policeman who, along with two other keystone cops, is ordered by the Prime Minster to get the goods on the woman. In the process of the investigation, the policeman hears a story which endears her to him and convinces him that the government is spinning yarns. Rather than becoming a cynic, resigned to his own helplessness like the narrator in the first part of the novel, he takes action against the government. His first heroic act is to turn in his badge. He then decides to tell the story about the woman to the media, thereby risking his life. When his article is printed in a newspaper, the edition stays on the newsstands for just a few hours before it is removed by the government. But at the last moment a miracle occurs: photocopies of the confiscated article fall from buildings like confetti. The hero's message has been read and taken seriously. Someone is saved: "The happy events gave the superintendent a new soul . . . a different mind."
Unfortunately, something else, which I won't mention here, transpires at the end, turning the novel from a comedy into a work that could have been penned by Raymond Chandler. The virtue of the book's schizophrenic tone, which jumps from total distrust to credulity and then back again, is the fact that Saramago's Jekyll and Hyde act leaves us with a number of important things to consider. For instance, who has the last word? Is there reason for believing that citizens will ever "read the story" and grasp that the government has been lying to them all along?
Strictly speaking, the lesson of Seeing is that perception and reality are not simply matters of philosophical speculation; they are politically determined. Hence, the question posed by Saramago in this novel: Can we save ourselves from the distortions created by propaganda and official versions of events through art or heroism, or are the forces of politics and history stronger than man's best efforts to counter them? Saramago seems to suggest that art can bring about salvation, but his novel also leaves plenty of room for doubt. Although the novel may be deemed weak for its "uncertainty", it is praiseworthy for its intellectual honesty. The job of literature is not to provide simple answers. As the famous Russian novelist and playwright Anton Chekhov once wrote, literature's task is to expose society's worst ills, not solve them. Thus, in the tradition of Chekhov, Saramago's latest novel helps us to "see" that the greatest challenge for humanity now, and in the years to come, will arise out of the political sphere. Hopefully, the skepticism that comes with this challenge will not lead to resigned pessimism, but to a desire to effect change. ˛