My rating: 4 stars
Various books by José Saramago can be categorised as allegories. Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Seeing in the English translation) is certainly one of those. It delves into the complexities of democracy, how people need to find a way to express their dissatisfaction and how even democratically elected governments don’t always treat citizens with the respect they deserve. Set in the same location as Blindness, it pulls readers in thanks to an engaging prose, even if some of the characters are not fully fleshed out.
On a day of local elections, rain was heavily pouring down in the capital of an unnamed country. As no one was appearing to cast their votes, the people responsible for the polling station number 14 decided to call the ministry. They were informed that the same was happening at the majority of all the other polling stations in the city. When the rain started to stop, they became confident that voters would finally appear. And they were right. After four o’clock in the afternoon, there were long queues to vote. It was almost as if everyone had decided to vote at the same time.
Although abstention wasn’t as high as first feared, the counting of the votes revealed that more than 70% of the people in the capital had voted blank. For that reason, the government decided to repeat the election a week after. When the day came, long queues quickly formed. In order to understand if voters were planning something, spies were deployed to the polling stations. The votes were counted – 83% voted blank!
Instead of calling another election, the government decided to impose a state of exception on the capital. That was only the first immediate measure, though. Soon, they decided to isolate the city and move the government elsewhere. The inhabitants of the capital were perceived as delinquents and subversive elements who were endangering national unity, and the members of the government were determined to discover what had made so many people vote blank.
As in many other allegories, the individual characters are not the most important feature of this novel. The focus is on what they represent. Nevertheless, some feel like real human beings and not only like a symbol. That is the case, for example, of the mayor of the capital. His concern and frustration are convincingly portrayed. Not all of the characters are present throughout the novel, and that also influences their authenticity. The longer they are on page, the more real they feel. The police commissioner becomes a much more multifaceted character than he seems at first. He obeyed orders, but deep inside he questioned their legitimacy. Other characters, on the other hand, are part of the story for the sole purpose of raising specific questions.
The narrator doesn’t always sound like an imaginary entity. Occasionally, it seems like an actual person is responsible for telling the story. At a certain point during the first third of the book, the narrator assesses the writing style, concluding that there’s a lack of descriptions of certain locations, and takes the opportunity to improve it. From that moment onwards, the writing style becomes more involving and enthralling. Although the novel is full of idiomatic expressions, there are also many beautiful, visual sentences.
“Saberemos até que ponto está a cidade viva quando os negrumes intensos do céu principiarem a dissolver-se na vagarosa maré de profundo azul que uma boa visão já seria capaz de distinguir subindo do horizonte (…).”
“We will find out how alive the city is when the intense black of the sky begins to dissolve into the slow tide of deep blue which anyone with good eyesight would already be able to make out rising up from the horizon (…).”
The prose becomes a dance in which words move rhythmically towards one another, carrying readers through lengthy paragraphs. Actions, conversations, descriptions and commentaries by the narrator merge together without it feeling cumbersome, which is something that never fails to surprise me about Saramago’s writing style. Moreover, there are also various witty and humorous moments throughout.
Seeing is set in the same country and features some of the same characters as Blindness. At first it doesn’t seem necessary to have read the latter to understand the first, but a relevant connection ends up being established between the two novels. Thus, I would recommend reading Blindness first. The two books look at society from two different perspectives, however. If Blindness focuses on how humans in general deal with an extreme situation, Seeing explores the tactics of a government, which is undeniably ruthless.
This is not a novel for readers who wish to have all of their questions answered. But it’s without a doubt a stimulating allegory.