Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: 'Seeing' by Jose Saramago

José Saramago (1922- )
Seeing (2004)

307 pages

In the local elections of the capital city in an unnamed country, 70% of the ballots cast turn out to be blank. The people have gone to the polls and voted, but a significant majority of them have shown they support none of the political parties. By making themselves counted, but not for any version of the establishment, these voters make clear their dissatisfaction with all of the political parties. In particular though, this leaves the ruling party adrift, rejected by a majority of the people, but left in power since no other party has gained support in their place.

The politicians, unnerved by the sudden vacuum in support, begin grasping for ways to force this newly developed majority of "blankers" to return to the old social order. After a quickly called second election results in over 80% of the ballots cast being blank, the politicians in the ruling party transform the threat that the vote means to their political existence, into a view of the vote as a threat to the nation as a whole --- as an attack on the nation which must be defended at any cost.

Using this premise to initiate his story, José Saramago writes a political satire that savages the seemingly innate tendency of people to transform a threat to their position into a threat to the larger structure they are a part of, and the absurd depths they will reach trying to defend their position in the pretence of defending the larger structure. In Seeing, it's the politicians of the ruling party who feel under siege, and who lash out with escalating force to defend their power in the name of defending the nation and it's system of government, only to find each new and more aggressive measure they take not only failing to bring society back to it's normal course, but in fact reinforcing the powerlessness of the politicians and their lack of understanding of situation. Those voices of reason that do exist among the politicians and functionaries of the government are swept aside in the frenzy to answer this "depth charge launched against the system," as one politician puts it, leaving an increasingly paranoid and extremist group of leaders designing ever more dramatic measures to re-gain their control over the situation.

The novel links back in a direct way to Saramago's earlier novel Blindness, in which the population of this same country, four years before the current novel opens, all suddenly go blind, save for one woman. In Blindness Saramago portrayed the quick decay of societal norms and behavior when the existing structures are left powerless by the lack of vision; in Seeing there is also a kind of decay, this time in the reasoned behavior of the politicians left powerless by lack of support from their constituents. In both novels, Saramago follows a similar style: no one has a name, people being distinguished by their titles or descriptive traits.   Even the political parties in Seeing, are simply differentiated as the party of the right, the party in the middle and the party of the left.

At times the novel plays almost as a comedy, with the stubborn, prideful, almost willfully ignorant statements and choices of the politicians as they try to hold onto the power they feel slipping away. That smile is tempered though, by Saramago's demonstration of the slow but inexorable rise in the aggressiveness of the
politicians in their attempt to regain the support of the people --- of their right to rule in other words. They are able to justify in their own minds each new and more violent action as the necessary next step in the defense of the country, and they have control over the legal and military means to execute these actions. It is hard not to see the same trends in the real political world around us.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
Ursula K. Le Guin, in The Guardian

Michael Wood, in Slate

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