Terrible voting weather, remarked the presiding officer of polling station fourteen as he snapped shut his soaked umbrella and took off the raincoat that had proved of little use to him during the breathless forty-meter dash from the place where he had parked his car to the door through which, heart pounding, he had just appeared. I hope I’m not the last, he said to the secretary, who was standing slightly away from the door, safe from the sheets of rain which, caught by the wind, were drenching the floor. Your deputy hasn’t arrived yet, but we’ve still got plenty of time, said the secretary soothingly, With rain like this, it’ll be a feat in itself if we all manage to get here, said the presiding officer as they went into the room the voting would take place. He greeted, first, the poll clerks who would act as scrutineers and then the party representatives and their deputies. He was careful to address exactly the same words to all of them, not allowing his face or tone of voice to betray any political and ideological leanings of his own. A presiding officer, even of an ordinary polling station like this, should, in all circumstances, be guided by the strictest sense of independence, he should, in short, always observe decorum.
(Translated by Margaret Jull Costa) (1)
Today’s November 16. That means that if José Saramago were still alive, he’d be 90 years old.
A few days after my favourite novelist passed away I felt strongly compelled to read something by him, something that reminded me of all his best characteristics as a novelist. In only four or five years I had read all his novels I realized it was time to re-read one of them. I thought about this for a while, and took Seeing from the shelf. This wasn’t the first novel I read by him, but it was the first one that showed me that I could like José Saramago. Prior to it, I had tried and failed many times to read one of his novels. Then one day, reading the first lines of this novel, I unexpectedly enjoyed them, I laughed with them. For the first time I wasn’t noticing the length of the sentences, instead I was being carried away by their rhythm, by the omniscient narrator’s humour and his gently mocking tone.
At the time Saramago wrote this novel, the story was simultaneously a satire of recent Portuguese elections that had ended with a right-wing government headed by prime-minister Durão Barroso (who, after his government started losing popularity, quickly abandoned his mandate halfway through to accept an invitation to become the president of the European Commission; that’s the kind of fibre the politicians running the EU have), and a grim warning about the widening gap between the politicians and the electorate, with the elections registering a troublingly low turnout. At the time, though, few still spoke of what is now called the crisis of democracy. Since then the world has dangerously deteriorated. When I re-read it in 2010 the novel had become prophetic. Today a reader could think it had been written yesterday. The novel didn’t change, only the world changed in order to adjust itself to the reality depicted in the novel.
Seeing is basically about a simple idea we should all put into practice, just to see what would happen. In the unnamed capital of an unnamed country, a curious event happens on election day: over seventy percent of the electors cast blank votes. The right-wing government in power schedules new elections for the capital the following week, but the results are even worse: blank votes are over eighty percent this time. In spite of secret mass interrogations, the secret services don’t find any reasons to explain why the capital’s citizens voted this way or evidence of a subversive movement orchestrating this politically embarrassing situation. But instead of listening to the citizens, trying to understand the motives of their political disenchantment, the government declares martial law and the capital is placed under siege in order to teach the electors a lesson on democracy, for, even though voting blank is a right, to paraphrase the prime-minister, it must be used reasonably. The government, along with the police and other civil servants and institutions, abandons the capital. The prime-minister and his council of ministers predict that the city, left to run itself, will explode amidst a wave of theft, rape, murder etc. But the opposite occurs: the capital continues to lead a normal and peaceful existence. In fact living improves since people become dependent on each other and on themselves, developing a sort of anarchic government. As you know, this novel is a sequel to Blindness, and only recently did I realize the inversion of ideas. In Blindness, hospitals are converted into quarantine areas to keep the blind; abandoned by the government, the inhabitants turn into cruel beasts fighting each other in groups for power, food and sex. The opposite happens in Seeing: abandoned by the government, people discover a better, freer way of living, based on kindness and mutual aid. The government, fearing its authority and need to exist threatened, plots several schemes to cause public unrest and get control of the city back, going so far as to using terrorism and assassination against its own citizens.
Starting from this implausible premise, Saramago writes one of his most provocative novels. This unprecedented act in the history of democracy sends waves of panic through the prime-minister and the ministers, who all of sudden see the basis of their power undermined. People have to vote, even if they no longer vote for the people in power. But they have to vote: left, centre, right, whatever party they vote in doesn’t matter. They just can’t vote blank en masse. Otherwise the great farce that the electoral system has become, confronted with its own hollowness, collapses. The blank vote means death to the government because if citizens don’t vote for someone how can a prime-minister or president legitimatise their authority? What becomes the basis of their power? For a long time now democracy has been sick. Democracy is no longer, arguably never was, the rule of the people. It is, to paraphrase the anarchist Emma Goldman, an analgesic people take every four years to ease the pain. People delegate power to a cadre of politicians, who do everything against the will of the people, and then the people vote for their opponents, who do exactly the same. And the cycle repeats itself, with a consequence that is slow in its signs: little by little people grow indifferent to the habits of democracy and resign themselves to the belief that there’s no point in voting, no way to change things. Seeing, rather than reassure people that democracy still works, exposes this wound, shows the fragility of this sick political system, how even a simple democratic act can turn a democracy into a dictatorship. But Saramago is not yet ready to despair and resign himself to hopelessness. The solution he offers is simple: civism, that is, the involvement of the average citizen in the everyday management and organisation of public life, therefore reclaiming the authority and power given to a political class alienated from and hostile to the wishes of its electors.
The novel constantly shifts perspectives between the prime-minister and his council of ministers and the unnamed masses of citizens. The novel follows a simple pattern: the ministers plot and scheme, operating on the belief that the masses will behave stupidly, barbarically and submissively. Their contempt would be hilarious if it didn’t seem so familiar and accurate. But the masses, for once, even if only in a novel, always rise above their expectations. When the police abandon the city, the crime rate remains stable. When dustmen are forbidden to work, the citizens mobilize themselves to clean up the city. When the government blows up a bomb in the underground, killing several victims, the population disappoints them by organizing a peaceful march in protest. In one of my favourite examples, a group of citizens loyal to the government cowardly abandons the city during the night, thinking the army will allow them to cross the blockade; but a communication error prevents the military from receiving the orders to let them pass, and the deserters are forced to return home. The cabinet of ministers has orchestrated the error and hopes this attempt at running away will spark a massacre, that the blank voters will kill them. Instead the citizens welcome them back and even help them unpack their things.
If there is a character resembling a protagonist in the novel, that is the superintendent. The superintendent is a police officer in charge of establishing a link between the white blindness of Blindness and the new blindness of the blank ballots, according to the government’s interpretation. Thanks to a letter sent by one of the characters of the previous novel, the government discovers that there was a woman who didn’t go blind, the doctor’s wife. Eager to turn her into a scapegoat, the government puts a team of policemen, led by the superintendent, to investigate her. Words fail me to express my love for this character; he’s only in half the novel, but he’s written with so much humanity his presence overwhelms the other half. He’s an opinionated, meditative, gentle, quick-witted, moral man, similar to inspector Amerigo Rogas from Leonardo Sciascia’s Equal Danger. The government think he’s their lackey but the superintendent, after meeting the doctor’s wife, starts sabotaging his own operation, in awe of her combative personality. “There are people who continue standing on their feet after they’re knocked down, and you’re one of them, ma’am” he says to her. Writing a letter detailing everything the government has done, he goes to a newspaper to have it printed, in spite of the reign of censorship the government has imposed. What follow is a dialogue between the newspaper’s director and the superintendent:
It’s time you tell us once and for all who you are, sir, there’s a name on the letter, that is certain, but nothing tells us that it isn’t fake, you may simply be an agent provocateur sent here by the police to test us and compromise us, I’m not saying you are, mind you, what I wish to make clear is that there is no way of us continuing this conversation if you don’t identify yourself right now. The superintendent placed his hand in his pocket, took out his wallet, Here you have it, he said, and handed to the director his police superintendent card. The look on the director’s face went instantly from discretion to stupefaction, What, you’re a police superintendent, he asked, Police superintendent, repeated in awe the editor in chief to whom the director had given the document, Yes, was the serene reply, and now I believe we can continue the conversation, If you permit me this question, the director asked, what had made you take such a step, Reasons of my own, At least tell me one so I’ll convince myself I’m not dreaming, When we’re born, when we enter this world, it’s as if we signed a pact for all life, but one day it may happen that we have to ask ourselves Who signed this for me, I asked and the answer is that paper, Are you aware of what may happen to you, Yes, I’ve had enough time to think about it.
They publish the article. Hours after the newspaper comes out, the police start confiscating it in every kiosk. The detective walks aimlessly throughout the city, observing, afraid, nervous, considering his next plans of action, until he’s about to give up in despair:
Then, nothing, return to the street’s labyrinth, disorientate himself, get lost and retrace his steps, walk, walk, eat without appetite, just to be able to stand on his feet, go into a cinema for two hours, distract himself watching the adventures of an expedition to mars when little green men still existed there, and come out blinking against the evening’s bright light, think about going into another cinema and spend two more hours sailing twenty thousand leagues in captain nemo’s submarine, and immediately give up the idea because something strange had happened in the city, these men and these women who are walking around distributing small papers that people stop to read and quickly keep in their pocket, it’s the photocopy of the article of the confiscated newspaper, the one that has the title What Else Must We Know, the one that in between the lines tells the five day’s true history, then the superintendent can’t restrain himself, and right there, like a child, he starts crying convulsively, a woman his age approaches to ask him if he’s feeling ill, if he needs help, and he can only wave that no, that he’s alright, not to worry, thank you very much, and, since chance sometimes does things correctly, someone from this building’s high story drops a handful of papers, and another, and another, and down here people raise their arms to grab them, and the papers fall down, hover like pigeons, and one of them rested momentarily on the superintendent’s shoulder and fell on the ground. Nothing is yet lost after all, the city took the matter into its own hands, got hundreds of photocopying machines working, and now it’s cheerful groups of girls and boys that walk around slipping the papers in mail boxes or delivering them to doors, someone asks if it’s advertising, and they say yes sir, and of the best there is.
For the life-long pessimist and sceptic that Saramago was, the novel is extremely hopeful about human goodness and not once doubts that people have the power to change the natural order of things. Much has been said and written about Saramago being a communist, but if Seeing shows admiration for an ideology, that would be anarchism, or at least a belief in peoples’ capacity to rule themselves, on the basis of love, justice and mutual respect, without interference or manipulation from power-hungry entities. There won’t be a shortage of people declaring that this novel is naïve and utopian, since experience show us people acting the opposite way every day; but like Saramago, the least naïve writer I ever read, once said one must never stop being naïve. Seeing is simultaneously a portrait of the worst in politics and a celebration of mankind’s brightest potential.
We'll come next Monday for Saramago's plays and poetry.
1 All other translations by me.