Read: May 2007
Four years ago a City was hit by a plague of blindness. It was contagious and there was no cure. Before long the entire population was blind and the City descended into savagery. But one woman retained her sight, leading her friends to survival. Through it all she had to watch as the savage and horrific events unfolded. But then, as quickly as it started, the blindness began to ease, people regained their sight and everything returned to normal.
This was the plot of the startlingly original and thoroughly terrifying novel from Portuguese Nobel Prize winning author Jose Saramago. Blindness was a pleasure to read, as is Seeing.
We are now four years later and it is election day. But when the results are announced the government is devastated to discover that over 70% of the votes cast are blank. Not spoiled, not abstained, just blank. They hastily call a new election but the results only get worse, now over 83% have cast blank votes. The Government panics, indignantly struggling to contain what they see as a strike at the very heart of democracy. But there is no sign of where this conspiracy has come from, no sign of what criminal mastermind is behind it all. They declare a state of emergency and blockade the City, to teach the people a lesson about democratic responsibility.
Just as in Blindness the premise behind this novel is absolutely fantastic. There are few books which are as timely or whose satire is as incisive and funny. The portrayal of a pseudo-dictatorial democratic government dogmatically using every dirty trick in the book to dissuade the populace from dissent is disturbingly believable. It is impossible not to be inspired by the opportunity for political dissent that such a mass tactic would provide, is impossible not to dream of such unity of hearts and minds. The subtlety of the author allows him to write the entire book from the perspective of the authorities whist, at the same time, lambasting their all too believable policies.
The prose style is dense and Saramago’s archetypal style makes for an often difficult read. This is a book to read feverishly in a couple of days because it can be difficult to pick up and put down. Also the narrative distance that Saramago affords his characters means they are difficult to connect with and there is little emotional centre to associate with. Instead this is a fearsomely intelligent tour de force in which Saramago questions how we can live so passively in a world like ours.
And the question remains: what or who has led the populace to act in this divisive way? Or could it be that the City is suffering once more from an infectious plague, this time making people see more than any disparate group ever could. Perhaps I read too much into the ending of this book, but if not then ‘Seeing’ has one of the most brilliantly conceived plots of any book I have ever read.
7.5 out of 10