I thoroughly enjoyed "Seeing," Saramago's latest novel to be translated into English. This is a first-rate addition to the upper tier of his works.
*** 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.