Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Jose Saramago, "Seeing"

 - Ensaio sobre a lucidez Translation from Portuguese Margaret Jull Costa – e-book

Read from June 2nd to 15th 2017

My rating:

In the capital of a Portugal-like country, the very city infected, four years ago, with the blindness disease, it is election day. The representatives of the three main parties, p.i.t.m. (the party in the middle), p.o.t.r. (the party on the right) and p.o.t.l. (the party on the left) are waiting impatiently for the citizens to come and vote, for a heavy rain seems to keep everybody inside their homes. However, when all morning and afternoon pass without anybody showing up, the organizers start to worry, until 4 o’clock p.m. when everybody comes at once – a little strange, maybe, but it looks like a return to normality. And another surprise is in waiting when the votes are counted: almost all (more than 70% anyway) are blank, as though the voters couldn’t or wouldn’t be bothered to read what it was written on the ballot paper. The authorities decide to repeat the vote, with worse results: this time more than 80% of the votes are blank.

This is the initiating event of the story told by José Saramago’s in another of his disturbing novels: Seeing. Everybody who had read it, together with Wikipedia 😀, keep informing us that this is a sequel of his famous other novel, Blindness, stressing that they should be read in this order. I happened to do so, but I am not convinced that the order is really important (if you are not obsessed with chronology, that is), not as important as to read them both, anyway, because they seem to me mirror stories, with the same theme developed in their rising action: the eternal divorce between power and reason, between authority and humanity and arriving at the same conclusion in the falling action: blindness is not a medical condition but a social one, and the few who can still see are doomed a priori, since they are unable to escape the fate that had been written for them: 

“Superintendent, Yes, There’s a question I’d like to ask, but I’m not sure I dare, Ask it, please, Why are you doing this for us, why are you helping us, Because of something I read in a book, years ago now, and which I had forgotten, but which has come back to me in the last few days, What was that, We are born, and at that moment, it is as if we had signed a pact for the rest of our life, but a day may come when we will ask ourselves Who signed this on my behalf…”

Furthermore, in a review The Guardian published in 2006, Ursula K Le Guin includes a quotation from José Saramago’s speech after accepting the Nobel prize, quotation that could very well apply to both novels: "The apprentice thought, 'we are blind', and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures."

On the other hand, the similarities between the two books are often concealed by (sometimes) perfect oppositions. Indeed, the blind are replaced by seers (literally and figuratively), the lawless by lawmen, the anarchy by democracy, the insane asylum by the sane city and the blind eye by the blank paper. Even the denouements seem in antithesis: a happy end for the first novel and a tragic one for the second. However, all these contrasts serve the same purpose: to prove that it doesn’t matter how and what you are, the result is always the same: the peaceful, decent people are always the victims, silent lambs to be slapped by the powerful every time they try to step aside the way to the slaughter house, the few who dare to fight, like the detective or the ophthalmologist’s wife, are always reduced to silence, and at the end of the day to be blind or not is irrelevant, it is, as I’ve already said, only a medical condition, for what is worth seeing in a world that mocks your eyes you every day with lies and terror, in which civil rights are only symbolic and never irrevocable? 

… you will understand, too late, that rights only exist fully in the words in which they are expressed and on the piece of paper on which they are recorded, whether in the form of a constitution, a law or a regulation, you will understand and, one hopes, be convinced, that their wrong or unthinking application will convulse the most firmly established society, you will understand, at last, that simple common sense tells us to take them as a mere symbol of what could be, but never as a possible, concrete reality. Casting a blank vote is your irrevocable right, and no one will ever deny you that right, but, just as we tell children not to play with matches, so we warn whole peoples of the dangers of playing with dynamite.

Thus, every single contrast seems to fade away, unfortunately not in that coincidentia oppositorum, the ancient philosophy dreamt of as a step towards transcendence, but in the chaotic way that mixes values and is a step towards hell. For what is the difference between the bunch of rapists and terrorists in Blindness and the mighty government in Seeing that bombs the city and punishes its citizens because

…the city, after all, is no longer part of the known world, it’s a pot full of putrefying food and maggots, an island set adrift in a sea not its own, a dangerous source of infection…

And what is the difference between the blind people and the people who can see but behave like when they were blind, accepting their fate with dignity, it’s true, but also with resignation?

The demonstration did not live up to their expectations. The people arrived and filled the square, they stood for half an hour staring in silence at the closed-up palace, then they dispersed, and, some walking, others in buses, still others cadging lifts from supportive strangers, they all went home.

There is one true constant (in the sense that he isn’t a mirror image, but the same image in both novels): the dog named Constant (the only name written with a capital letter in the book, actually, the only name given to a character in the book), the dog of tears, a modern Cerberus that in the end hops into the boat of Caron with his mistress, after witnessing all that it was to witness, after howling all that it was to howl about. The delicate symmetry of the narrative is thus achieved: the motto from “The Book of Voices” (where else from?) puts the dog on the scene long before his actual appearance (“Let’s howl, said the dog”) and the final scene, in which his long howl is suddenly interrupted by the shot, lets him out of it. Significantly, and to firmly close the circle between the two books (in order not to see anymore where one begins and the other ends), the world has become once again not only blind, but also deaf and willingly so:

Then a blind man asked, Did you hear something, Three shots, replied another blind man, But there was a dog howling too, It’s stopped now, that must have been the third shot, Good, I hate to hear dogs howl.


  1. Vai de blănița și de mustățile mele! De când am început hibernarea, ca toți urșii dealtfel (numai că eu mi-am luat și mașina de scris în bârlog), ai citit un munte de cărți și ai scris o mulțime de recenzii. Am pus vreo câteva dintre ele pe listuțele mele, dar nu prea multe ca să îmi mai rămână timp și de scris :-).