In the unnamed capital city of an unidentified democratic country, election day morning is marred by torrential rains. Voter turnout is disturbingly low, but the weather breaks by midafternoon and the population heads en masse to their voting stations. The government's relief is short-lived, however, when vote counting reveals that over 70% of the ballots cast in the capital have been left blank. Baffled by this apparent civic lapse, the government gives the citizenry a chance to make amends just one week later with another election day. The results are worse: now 83% of the ballots are blank. The two major political parties - the ruling party of the right (p.o.t.r.) and their chief adversary, the party of the middle (p.o.t.m.) - are in a panic, while the haplessly marginalized party of the left (p.o.t.l.) produces an analysis claiming that the blank ballots are essentially a vote for their progressive agenda. Is this an organized conspiracy to overthrow not just the ruling government but the entire democratic system? If so, who is behind it, and how did they manage to organize hundreds of thousands of people into such subversion without being noticed? When asked how they voted, ordinary citizens simply respond that such information is private, and besides, is not leaving the ballot blank their right?
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.