Seeing By José Saramago, trans Margaret Jull Costa

No cheers for a democracy in the dark
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The Independent Culture

There are many routes to the heart of José Saramago's view of the world, but only one destination. From the whimsicality of The Stone Raft, in which Portugal's Nobel laureate has the Iberian peninsula float away from Europe, and The Double, where a man discovers his racier duplicate, to the shocking philosophical horizons of Blindness, in which an unnamed city is struck by an epidemic of blindness and a paroxysm of violence, the eternal fragility of ourselves and our social conditions seems to be clear. In his politics, Saramago is a lifelong communist, and in his language are rich traces still of his peasant childhood in the country north of Lisbon, but in his offering of what the world is like, his novels have been wise beyond ideology, supremely human.

Reading him remains an unusual experience. His serpentine paragraphs and strings of dialogue, and the prolix, wiseacre tones of his narrator that (in Margaret Jull Costa's brilliantly modulated translations) echo Fielding or Sterne, constitute one of the most unfamiliar voices in current fiction. Saramago will not be rushed. But the the rewards of slowness are often, as in Seeing, very great.

This novel is set in the same city where, four years before, the outbreak of blindness occurred. It opens at a polling station on "national election day", where the presiding officer cannot understand why the turnout is so miserable. Though the voting picks up, the result is an electoral disaster: 70 percent ballot papers are blank. A week later the vote is re-run, and the blank votes are 83 percent.

The collapse of faith not in a government but in the idea of government is classified by the authorities as nihilism, then as lack of patriotism. A state of emergency is declared. The government flees.

The citizens are puzzled by their leaders' reaction. Most shrug and carry on. Their blank votes are followed by a steady rejection of newspapers and television, "as if a majority of the city's inhabitants were determined to change their lives, their tastes and their style". An intoxicating aspect of Saramago's story is that many electors surely do dream of expressing such a loss of faith in leaders.

But how vulnerable we are, too, to those who have power. Very soon those who returned blank ballots are classified by the exiled government as terrorists. Squabbling ministers agree their own conspiracy. A bomb detonates in a ticket hall: many deaths occur. As the interior minister says, such steps will remind people "that the unfettered use of the blank ballot paper would make the democratic system unworkable". This democracy is only another form of control.

The satire darkens as a detective is ordered to find the one woman, an ophthalmologist's wife, who did not lose her sight. A spurious connection is made between her non-blindness and her role as leader of the conspiracy. When the detective understands that he is dealing with a kind of heroine, he warns her. But no two citizens can change the course of power so bent on its own preservation.

Interviewing Saramago for a BBC Four film a couple of years ago, I should have guessed that something like this novel was coming. He said, "We live in a very peculiar world, everything is debated, everything is discussed, everything except democracy... All I ask is 'What is democracy?" His own answer has resulted, without doubt, in one of his greatest novels.

Nothing I can remember reading tells me more, and with such arresting humour and simplicity, about the imposture of the times we live in. And possibly those we have always lived in, if even our most cherished democracy is capable of insulting us with its silent thuggery.

Julian Evans is writing the biography of Norman Lewis

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