Jose Saramago’s Seeing

Jose Saramago again crafter another ‘what-if’ scenario which is the bleakest back-of-head anxiety of any liberal democratic society— what if people will cease to exercise their ‘freedom’ to vote?

Saramago’s sequel to the Nobel prize-winning novel Blindness is a laid-back delight. Seeing goes back to the unnamed country in Blindness, now plagued with a different disease, the ‘plague of blank votes.’ The novel starts with a misfortunate election amid a heavy rain, the least favored weather for a national election. During the morning, it seems as if every citizen in every part of the country is afflicted with a mysterious disease of laziness, or most likely a lack fervent political will, since it is raining cats and dogs and no one wanted to bother venturing the floods just to cast their votes. However, towards the end of the day, the sun peeped for awhile and the floods of water were replaced by floods of men and women swarming the precints. As if to prove that hope is always ephemeral especially in politics, the surge of voting citizens was undermined by the outcome of the elections— 83% of the voters casted blank votes. And that is where the story begins.

Saramago’s unique style of connected sentences, pages-long paragraphs, lack of quotation marks is perfect for his narrative intention. It seems as if the excruciatingly lengthy paragraphs are chimerically merged in an enormous flowing stream of detail and raunchy rumor. All the characters are unnamed except a dog who, of course, cannot speak. Names are irrelevant, since Saramago’s technique seems to interpellate the readers into mere viewers of a reportage of hypocritical bureaucratic characters. Feelings and emotions are almost non-existent in his very formal, even digressive prose. Any expression of emotion is met with harsh sarcasm, which of course is exactly how people in the government behave.

There are many protagonist, and there is no single character who can be considered the heroic focal point of the story. Needless to say, Seeing is the story of a whole system struggling with its anxieties, not of a particular hero as in the standard novel. What I like most about this book is that Saramago incorporates self-conscoius and incisive humor within the prose. I’ll not even hesitate to say that Saramago is funnier than Ricky Lee or Bob Ong. God, he makes me laugh like a psycho when I’m reading it during jeepney rides. Jonathann Swift will surely commend this man. Also a good thing is how he polishes a very disengaged and effortlessly humorous style which serves as a good contrasting background to the spurts of violence he incorporates in the narrative. The morbidity is almost Tarantino-like, very casual and our-of-the-blue.

I also like the way how the government officials in the book are very talkative grammar Nazis who can’t say anything without a mile of disclaimers. The tons of verbiage, however, only make them more ambiguous, irrational and, as in the case of an excerpt below, deceiving but frantic:

I urge all the inhabitants of the capital, some so that they may better protect themselves from the terrible threat hanging over their heads, others, be they be guilty or innocent in their intentions, so that they can either turn from the evil into which they have dragged by who knows who or else risk becoming the direct target of the sanctions foreseen under the state of emergency whose declaration the government will be seeking from his excellency, the president, after, of course, the initial consultation with parliament, which has been convened tomorrow in extraordinary session, and from whom we expect to obtain unanimous approval. A change of tone, arms slightly spread, hands raised to shoulder height, The nation’s government feels sure that in coming here, like a loving father, to remind that sections of the capital’s population who strated from the straight and narrow o the sublime lesson to be learned from the parable of the prodigal son and by saying to them that there is no fault that cannot be forgiven  heart that is truly contrite and wholly reprentant, the government is merely giving expression to the fraternal will of the rest of the country, of all those citizens who, with praiseworthy civic feeling, properly fulfilled their electoral duties. The prime minister’s final flourish, Honour your country, for the eyes of the country are upon you, complete with drumrolls and bugle blasts, unearthed from the attics of the mustiest of nationalistic rhetoric, was ruined by Good night that rang entirely false, but then that is the great thing about ordinary words, they are incapable of deceit.

Saramago posing ala graduation creative pic

Forgive me for the lengthy excerpt, but this is really how Saramago writes. The antagonists in the book almost always use grandiloquent words and cryptic aphorisms like it will make them more gwapo. However, as Saramago ironically notes, “that is the great thing about ordinary words, they are incapable of deceit.”

Deceit is the keyword, since the novel focuses on how absurdities govern the practice of logic, especially in the systematic workings of a bureaucracy. Indeed, the novel is a bunch of absurdities knitted together, a gigantic farce which the characters take too lethally serious, of course to our own delight. (I am reminded of the often misattributed Hitler quote, “A lie, when repeated again and again will become true”). Saramago spilled the marrow of his novel in the following excerpt:

But that’s absurd, utterly absurd, As I’ve learned in this job, not only are the people in government never put off by what we judge to be absurd, they make use of absurdities to dull consciences and to destroy reason,

The citizens of the city, or the masses’, however, are portrayed as somewhat mute: long-suffering, sacrificial, meek, almost like the Christian ideal (“if someone slaps your right cheek, give him your left cheek to slap”, or something like that). Towards the middle chapters of the book, I’m almost ready to dismiss the book as fatalistic, portraying the masses as voiceless and powerless. But pressing towards the end, Saramago intensifies the action, as if teasing us to anticipate an angry shout of revolt from the oppressed citizens which for long have remained diplomatic. This is the beauty of the story, the long-awaited climax (which may or may not be), the increasing bleakness and darkness. I would be more kind not to crack nut for those who haven’t read the book.

The elections are again approaching, but I believe Saramago’s thought experiment is relevant to our understanding of the our own democracy vainly trying to pull itself together (Karlo tells us something about how the scenario in Seeing is impossible in our country).

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