Seeing Paperback – Apr 9 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In Nobel Prize–winner Saramogo's best known novel, Blindness, an unnamed capital city experiences a devastating (although transient) epidemic of blindness that mysteriously spares one woman, an eye doctor's wife, who helps a blinded group survive until their sight returns. His new novel, set in the same capital city four years later, depicts a legal "revolution," when 83% of its citizens cast blank ballots in a national election. The president declares a state of siege, but even though soldiers cordon off the city, nothing affects the city's maddening cheerfulness. The president receives an anonymous letter revealing the case of the eye doctor's wife (she and the group she helped had kept her support secret), and the minister in charge of internal security sends undercover policemen to investigate her connection to the "blank" revolution. The allegorical blindness/sight framework is weak and obvious, and Saramago's capital city sometimes reminds one of Dr. Seuss's Whoville. Yet it works: as the novel establishes its figures (the pompous president, tremulous ministers and pantomime detectives), it acquires the momentum of a bedroom (here, cabinet) farce, baldly sending up EU politicos and major media editorialists. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The Portuguese winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize continues his cerebral yet enticing and exciting novels about the absurdities to be witnessed in contemporary society and politics. In a country obviously Portugal, in a situation Kafka would have complimented Saramago for creating, national elections are called; in the capital city, however, a strange occurrence baffles authorities. Early and driving rain keeps most people from the polls, and when skies clear later in the day, masses of people do indeed come out to vote; but, as it turns out, the vast majority of the ballots turned in are blank. What kind of insurrection is this? Each government minister, every party from Left to Right, is left to interpret what it means--and equally important, what is to be done? The government leaves the capital, and the city is basically plunged into siege conditions. With run-on paragraphs and dialogue, the author challenges readers to pay close attention; the appreciators of literary fiction who do so will find a clever, even sly, but also sobering exploration of when governments do and when they do not have reason to be paranoid. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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TERRIBLE VOTING WEATHER, REMARKED THE PRESIDING OFFICER OF polling station fourteen as he snapped shut his soaked umbrella and took off the raincoat that had proved of little use to him during the breathless forty-meter dash from the place where he had parked his car to the door through which, heart pounding, he had just appeared. Read the first page
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*** Spoiler alert: the following paragraphs reveal a few elements of the plot. ***
In the Nov. 8, 2004, issue of "The American Conservative" magazine, the managing editor, Kara Hopkins, advocated not voting in the pending presidential election. "Silence is a profound expression," she argued, "and enough unraised voices eventually turn even the most partisan heads." "Elections," she contended, "maintain the illusion of opposing parties exchanging ideas rather than political animals competing for power. Selling voting as the ultimate expression of citizenship . . . legitimizes the process that keeps them in control and makes the public docile by enforcing the notion that we rule ourselves."
Whether or not one agrees with Hopkins, she offers a perspective that Saramago might endorse, to judge by "Seeing." In "Seeing," some 70 percent of the residents of the capital of an unnamed country turn in blank ballots in an election, refusing to vote for the Party of the Right, the Party of the Center, or the Party of the Left. The government, dominated by unsavory and unprincipled authoritarians, is horrified that the rituals of democracy have generated a challenge to the government's legitimacy and orders the election to be reheld. But the percentage of blank votes is higher than before.
The government's reaction, though often fumbling, is vicious and lethal. It uses various Orwellian techniques and, as it deems necessary, violence to punish the capital's residents and try to get them to appear to respect the available choices, regardless of their true feelings about the three parties.
This is a fable. It is not intended to be entirely realistic, and the reader must suspend disbelief at times. After all, a modern Western democracy ("Seeing" appears to take place in western Europe) that took Draconian measures against its citizens for refusing to vote would be subject to external pressure and would have to relent. And it would be unlikely to take such measures in the first place. Western democracies are famously tolerant of political dissent--for example, from 1993-1997 Canada tolerated having as the federal government's official opposition party the Bloc Quebecois, whose goal is to separate Quebec from the Canadian federation. But Saramago is so masterly a writer that he makes the implausible possible. The reader does soon ask, "Why would any government that observes the forms of democracy behave this way?" A plot twist that appears in the middle of the novel provides an answer.
In "Seeing," Saramago continues his charming dance with the Portuguese language (I read the book in Portuguese). He narrates events at a languid pace (and occasionally with deceptive calmness by bringing forth a horrible revelation only at the end of an otherwise disarmingly anodyne paragraph). And his characters speak a Portuguese more formal than would be found in much formal writing. People who spoke this way in real life would be seen as affected. But Saramago's use of the King's Portuguese doesn't come across as pretentious; rather, it's a celebration of the outer reaches of classic Portuguese. I often think that Saramago's goal is to restore a full-fledged type of Portuguese that is fading, perhaps thanks to an onslaught of televised Brazilian soap operas and the like. Like Shakespeare, whose facility with language and extraordinary vocabulary altered English forever, Saramago may succeed in elevating Portuguese to a language different from the form that preceded his literary career. That would have to be the supreme achievement of any writer of literature.
In his first book, the author helps the reader understand how a world would look if all social stability and government broke down and the populace was left blind and helpless. The picture is very ugly and very painful. Yet, it has a realism that can not be ignored.
"Seeing" asks an instrumental operative question: "Are those who see, less blind than those who don't?" Here Saramago again creates a sociological and political microcosm to illustrate his points. There are many points he makes, but one of his central ones is that citizens can be recognized by "standing up and refusing to be counted." This act seems to those in control as a giant insurrection. Additionally, when people spontaneously choose to make such a statement; what should the government do about it? And they can make it unilaterally, without a movement or a leader, per se.
Saramago also gives the reader an interesting and experimental writing style. He dispenses with much normal grammar, yet rarely does this impede the reader's ability to glean complete understanding, or close to it, of what is happening in the story. Novelistically, the book is extremely well written and engaging.
In many senses, Saramago conveys his feeling that people, events and beliefs can be manipulated. But they can only be manipulated so far. If Saramago is speaking of any specific country, he takes care not to reveal it. He almost jests that he is talking about Portugal, but indicates that this is clearly just to give substance to the contentions of his story, to ground the reader in some basis of mundane reality. Perhaps one imposes the concept on whatever country they live it, because the points Saramago is making are universal. The government can influence the way things happen, how they appear, what is believed and what becomes history. They do have the power to do that, but they do not have the power to control the electorate. And if and when they take things too far, the electorate can stand up and be counted. Change is just around the corner in all Democratic Countries.
This book is recommended to all who want to see the kinds of things that Governments can do when motivated to do so. It is a very educational and impressive book. It is recommended to all people of voting age.
Thus begins Jose Saramago's brilliant new book, SEEING. The setting is the same unnamed country where, four years earlier, a plague of contagious but temporary "white blindness" afflicted first the capital city, then spread throughout the country. The resulting breakdown of civic institutions and reversion of life to the basest instincts for control and survival were magnificently chronicled in Saramago's earlier novel, BLINDNESS, undoubtedly the author's most powerful and approachable work to that date. The events surrounding that epidemic proved so shameful that the entire country tacitly agreed in the aftermath not to speak of or analyze what happened. Now, however, the blank white ballots bring back haunting memories of the white blindness. Perhaps the citizenry's refusal to cast marked ballots augurs some sort of political epidemic that could spread to the rest of the country.
What makes SEEING such a remarkable work is the picture Saramago draws of a right-wing government under duress, with eerie echoes (intentional or otherwise) of the current Bush Administration's "war on terror" and its imposition of democracy on Iraq. Unsure how to respond to a benign protest but certain that an anti-democratic conspiracy exists, Saramago's ruling government quickly labels the movement "terrorism, pure and unadulterated" and declares a state of emergency, allowing the government "to suspend at a stroke of a pen all constitutional guarantees." Five hundred citizens are seized at random and disappear into secret interrogation sites, and their status is coded red/red for secrecy. Their families are informed in Orwellian style not to worry about the lack of information concerning their loved ones, since "in that very silence lay the key that could guarantee their personal safety." When these moves bear no fruit regarding this "depth charge launched against the stability of the democratic system...of the entire planet," the right wing government adopts a series of increasingly drastic steps, from declaring a state of siege and concocting plots to create disorder to withdrawing the police and seat of government from the capital, sealing the city against all entrances and exits, and finally manufacturing their own terrorist ringleader. The city continues to function near-normally throughout, the people parrying each of the government's thrusts in inexplicable unison and with such a level of nonviolent resistance that they must all be channeling Mahatma Gandhi.
As always, Saramago presents his story in dense, run-on sentences that twist and turn and sparkle like diamonds, to be read and admired for their brilliant cut and the play of light through their many facets. To wit,
-- the media promote "the old game of public virtues masking private vices, the jolly carousel of private vices elevated to the status of public virtues..."
-- "...we will all continue to lie when we tell the truth, and to tell the truth when we lie..."
-- "...since the citizens of this country were not in the healthy habit of demanding proper enforcement of the rights bestowed on them by the constitution, it was only logical, even natural, that they failed even to notice that those rights had been suspended."
-- "...demonstrations never achieve anything, if they did, we wouldn't allow them..."
If Gabriel Garcia Marquez is arguably the world's greatest living writer, Jose Saramago proves once again in SEEING that he is the world's greatest active practitioner of the novel form, and certainly the most deserving Nobelist for Literature in the last decade. SEEING is, in a word, extraordinary. In it, Saramago demonstrates unparalleled mastery of the written word, flashes his low-key but biting satire like a rapier, and reinforces his position as the moral voice of his generation.
Somehow the phenomenon of the blank votes is connected to the epidemic of blindness that swept the country four years earlier (in Saramago's previous novel, Blindness), and the government begins to focus its suspicions on the one person who didn't go blind--a courageous woman who kept a small group of people alive through unspeakable horrors. A police superintendent is sent out with a small team to investigate this woman--and to find her guilty.
Author Jose Saramago writes brilliantly, with wit, wisdom and humor, building inexorably to a horrific ending. His manner of writing, as always, takes some getting used to. Long, rambling paragraphs with minimal punctuation, as though you were simply overhearing the whole thing. Author Saramago has a dark view of human institutions, and of leaders who have to be right at any cost. In Seeing, he has written a brilliant, dark, and persuasive parable of modern life. I recommend this book highly, but be sure to read Blindness first. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
All of these things are there in 'Seeing.' It begins with a unique idea: what if the vast majority of the population of a (supposedly) democratic nation voted, but turned in blank ballots? What implication would this have for the election? How would a government react to this? As usual, Saramago finds a way to explore this idea that is not trite or simplistic, he makes it more personal (and thus, more universal) than a political thriller. It begins with the government reaction to the blank ballots, and take a while to get moving, but eventually becomes a very individual story, which is what Saramago does best. And certainly, it is beautifully written. There are passages of great beauty in language and originality of concept that are simply remarkable. Nobody writes like Saramago does.
So why was I a little disappointed at the end? I think it was the overt poltics of the book. I didn't mind the point that he was trying to make -- I agreed with much of it, actually. But most of his books, while they have political implications, they aren't so obvious about it. This book's predecessor, 'Blindness,' certainly left itself open to poltical interpretations, and I'm sure that was intentional. My favorite Saramago novel, 'The Stone Raft,' also had clear political implications. But neither book was quite so obvious about it as this one was. Neither felt the need to state its politics so plainly, but in those, Saramago found ways to make his points a little more subtly, to trust the reader to draw the conclusions in the end. In 'Seeing' the political point of the book is so clearly stated that there wasn't much left to think about by the end. In a way, that might be considered more satisfying, but to me having the politics handed to me on a platter was something of a disappointment. I didn't have to work for it a little the way I did in other Saramago books.
Make no mistake, 'Seeing' is still a good book, and a good example of what makes Saramago such a unique writer. It's just not the best example. It was nice to see some of the characters from 'Blindness' again here, and it was good to get a little more closure on their story. Reading 'Seeing' was very thought-provoking. It made me wonder what would happen if the events of the book came to pass in the real world. It made me wonder about the next big U.S. election in 2008. What would happen if I cast a blank vote? What would happen if everyone cast a blank vote?
Perhaps, someday, we will see.