The Election With No Results
Jose Saramago's timely political parable.
By Michael Wood -- Posted Monday, April 10, 2006, at 6:24 AM ET
Jose Saramago has a taste for alternative realities, for the use of fiction as a form of speculation. In one of his novels (The Stone Raft, 1986), the Iberian Peninsula breaks off physically from the rest of Europe and floats away into the Atlantic. In another (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, 1991), we read a detailed account of Christ's inmost thoughts. In yet another (Blindness, 1995), a sudden affliction unknown to science robs a whole population of its sight. There is a political edge to all these stories, and more than a hint of allegory. But none of them is as openly political as Seeing, Saramago's new novel, first published in Portuguese in 2004. In the other works things inexplicably happen to people; in this one people are what happen to a whole country, and especially to its capital.
The novel opens with an elegant deception, a form of bluff. There is terrible weather in the city on election day; no one is showing up at the polling booths. Perhaps no one will come at all, and this will be the country's first election with absolutely no votes cast. But the weather clears up, and people start voting even in the rain. Absence is not the problem. The problem is the votes themselves: 13 percent for the party on the right, 9 percent for the party in the middle and, 2.5 percent for the party on the left. The rest of the votes, more than 70 percent, are blank. The government, in consternation but still clinging to the constitution, has the mandatory second election the following week. This time 83 percent of the votes are blank. The people of the city have not abstained from voting, and they have not spoiled their ballots. They have not written in candidates. They have democratically objected to the particular form of democracy on offer.
This is not, of course, how the government sees it, and the press dutifully follows the government's line. One editorial writes of a "dissolute use of the vote." The minister of the interior speaks of the need to make the populace "realize that the unfettered use of the blank ballot paper would make the democratic system unworkable." The first half of the novel recounts the government's unavailing maneuvers in the face of the situation. Thinking the problem is confined, or can be confined, to the city, they declare a state of emergency in the capital; then a state of siege; then the government and all governmental services except firefighters leave the city; then the city is sealed off.
AL-CIAda -- google GLADIO and you know who did this (Madrid 11 March 2004)
The government blows up a railway station, (bologna GLADIO) hoping the citizens will blame it on terrorists and/or foreign agitators. The citizens see through this at once. The government's next hope is that a huge, peaceful demonstration will turn sour or violent, and the press does everything it can to encourage this possibility. The demonstration remains peaceful.
At this point the government receives a letter that sends its ministers back to their memories of the plague of blindness in the same city four years earlier—and that sends the readers back to Saramago's earlier novel. The letter reminds us that one woman, closely in contact with this highly contagious disease, retained her sight throughout the epidemic. Isn't this suspicious, the letter-writer insinuates. Could she be behind the new epidemic, the refusal of democracy as we know it? The government, always on the lookout for stories of conspiracy, thinks this is worth investigating and sends three undercover police officers back into the city. The second half of the novel reports on their adventures. I shan't reveal the ending, which is both entirely predictable, given the unfolding logic of this novel, and deeply shocking all the same. All I shall say is that one of the policemen has a change of heart about his job and resigns. And that the novel ends with a dialogue between two blind men. Who are they? Just two blind men, or the first outriders of a return of the plague?
And what exactly is the relation between Seeing and the earlier novel about blindness? How is voting symbolically like losing your sight? Do the blank voters resemble blind people in any way? Well, yes, if you're a leader of one of the parties that are being ignored. And yes, if you're a suddenly powerless government. But what if it's the government who resembles blind people? This is the argument offered by a dissenting Cabinet minister. Then the voters would be seeing clearly, and the connection between blankness and blindness would vanish. Saramago's titles (in Portuguese literally An Essay on Blindness and An Essay on Lucidity) play subtly on these contrasting possibilities, and on one page of Seeing, the two key words face each other resolutely. The prime minister says "the blank vote is as destructive a form of blindness [cegueira] as the first one," and the minister of justice replies, "Either that or a form of clear-sightedness [lucidez]." Then he resigns.
Where are we in this novel? At one moment the president of the country addresses the "men and women of Portugal," but the narrator rushes in to say that this location is an "entirely gratuitous supposition." He adds that the Portuguese are known "for having always exercised their electoral duties with praiseworthy civic discipline and religious devotion." This is fairly complicated mischief, since the second sentence includes an ironic reference to the dictatorship that ruled Portugal for so long, and has a little anti-clerical flip in its tail. But the overall point is clear and challenging. These events have not happened in Portugal, or anywhere that boasts of being a democracy. But perhaps they should. We could think the government's sinister reactions in this novel are a warning to would-be radical democrats; but Saramago almost certainly wants us to think they are a sign of how much that radical democracy is needed.
Saramago's skillful translator Margaret Jull Costa shrewdly renders "lucidity" as "seeing," and drops the word "essay" from the two titles since Saramago's joke will hardly carry across into English. These are novels, not essays. But they do glance at the essay form. The people in these works don't have names, only roles: the minister of justice, the doctor's wife, the policeman, the officer of the polling station, and so on. Their exchanges of speech are marked only by commas and upper-case letters; no quotation marks, no line spacing. Both characters and dialogue are clustered into social forms, as if a whole culture were talking and acting through its most identifiable representatives. And the ostensible organizer of all this is Saramago's narrator, a friendly, garrulous sort who apologizes for his digressions and his use of overfamiliar idioms and regrets at one point that an "explanation did not prove to be quite as succinct as we promised." Yet he can be sharp, in his slightly fussy way, describing a man as "sleeping the sleep of the just, as people used to say in the days when they believed that the just existed." Here is how he records a conversation between police officers:
If there's no guilty party, we can't invent one, Are those your words or the minister's, Oh, I doubt they're the minister's words, at least I don't remember having heard him say them, Well, sir, I've never heard them all the time I've been in the police...
This is the essayist as satirist; the novelist hides behind the essayist and wonders what we think.
I'm making the method sound rather abstract, and certainly the tone of the work is strange; a kind of domesticated alienation effect, Brecht made bureaucratic. But the irony is too firm and funny, and the characters too engaged with their fates and those of others, for the work to feel abstract as we read it, and in a paradoxical movement, people become more individual because they have only their roles and their language to mark them. "What we dream also happens," the doctor's wife says to a policeman. He replies, "Hopefully not everything," and she asks him if he has a particular reason for saying that. He has, but he denies it. A little later he wonders whether the doctor and his wife, who must see him as their enemy, are sure they really want him to stay for lunch. Yes, they're sure. "And you're not afraid I might be tricking you." The doctor's wife says, "Not with those tears in your eyes, no." It's hard to see how the allocation of proper names could make this scene more intense or these people more human; indeed, proper names might subtract something, invite us to miss the way the sheer humanity of roles and speech and action may take us beyond our names, our ready-made psychological or civil identities.
In a famous poem, written in East Germany in 1953, Brecht quotes a contemporary as saying that the people have lost the trust of the government. Would it not therefore be easier, Brecht slyly asks, to dissolve the people and have the government elect another one? Saramago's novel is a
José de Sousa Saramago, GColSE (Portuguese pronunciation: [ʒuˈzɛ sɐɾɐˈmaɡu]; (November 16, 1922 – June 18, 2010) was a Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor. Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998. He founded the National Front for the Defense of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with Freitas-Magalhães and others. In the last years of his life, he lived in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain.
Saramago was born into a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal, a small village in the province of Ribatejo some hundred kilometers northeast of Lisbon. His parents were José de Sousa and Maria de Piedade. "Saramago", a wild herbaceous plant known in English as the wild radish, was his father's family's nickname, and was accidentally incorporated into his name upon registration of his birth. In 1924, Saramago's family moved to Lisbon, where his father started working as a policeman. A few months after the family moved to the capital, his brother Francisco, older by two years, died. He spent vacations with his grandparents in a village called Azinhaga. When his grandfather suffered a stroke and was to be taken to Lisbon for treatment, Saramago recalled, "He went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying good-bye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn't mark you for the rest of your life," Saramago said, "you have no feeling." Although Saramago was a good pupil, his parents were unable to afford to keep him in grammar school, and instead moved him to a technical school at age 12. After graduating, he worked as a car mechanic for two years. Later he worked as a translator, then as a journalist. He was assistant editor of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, a position he had to leave after the political events in 1975. After a period of working as a translator he was able to support himself as a writer. Saramago married Ilda Reis in 1944. Their only child, Violante, was born in 1947. From 1988 until his death in June of 2010 Saramago was married to the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río, who is the official translator of his books into Spanish.
José Saramago was in his mid-fifties before he won international acclaim, when his publication of Baltasar and Blimunda brought him to the attention of an international readership. This novel won the Portuguese PEN Club Award. Saramago has been a member of the Portuguese Communist Party since 1969, as well as an atheist and self-described pessimist. His views have aroused considerable controversy in Portugal, especially after the publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Members of the country's Catholic community were outraged by Saramago's representation of Jesus as a fallible human being. Portugal's conservative government would not allow Saramago's work to compete for the European Literary Prize, arguing that it offended the Catholic community. As a result, Saramago and his wife moved to Lanzarote, an island in the Spanish Canaries.
During the 2006 Lebanon War, he signed a statement together with Tariq Ali, John Berger, Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano, Naomi Klein, Harold Pinter, Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn, condemning what they characterized as "a long-term military, economic and geographic practice whose political aim is nothing less than the liquidation of the Palestinian nation". He stood unsuccessfully as a candidate for the European Parliament in the 2009 election.
Blindness is the story of an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the social breakdown that swiftly follows. The novel follows the misfortunes of a handful of characters who are among the first to be stricken and centers around a doctor and his wife, several of the doctor's patients, and assorted others, thrown together by chance. This group bands together in a family-like unit to survive by their wits and by the unexplained good fortune that the doctor's wife has escaped the blindness. The sudden onset and unexplained origin and nature of the blindness cause widespread panic, and the social order rapidly unravels as the government attempts to contain the apparent contagion and keep order via increasingly repressive and inept measures.
The first part of the novel follows the experiences of the central characters in the filthy, overcrowded asylum where they and other blind people have been quarantined. Hygiene, living conditions, and morale degrade horrifically in a very short period, mirroring the society outside.
Anxiety over the availability of food, caused by delivery irregularities, act to undermine solidarity; and lack of organization prevents the internees from fairly distributing food or chores. Soldiers assigned to guard the asylum and look after the well-being of the internees become increasingly antipathetic as one soldier after another becomes infected. The military refuse to allow in basic medicines, so that a simple infection becomes deadly. Fearing a break out, soldiers shoot down a crowd of internees waiting upon food delivery.
Conditions degenerate further, as an armed clique gains control over food deliveries, subjugating their fellow internees and exposing them to rape and deprivation. Faced with starvation, internees do battle and burn down the asylum, only to find that the army has abandoned the asylum, after which the protagonists join the throngs of nearly helpless blind people outside who wander the devastated city and fight one another to survive.
The story then follows the doctor and his wife and their impromptu "family" as they attempt to survive outside, cared for largely by the doctor's wife, who still sees (though she must hide this fact at first). The breakdown of society is near total. Law and order, social services, government, schools, etc., no longer function. Families have been separated and cannot find each other. People squat in abandoned buildings and scrounge for food; violence, disease, and despair threaten to overwhelm human coping. The doctor and his wife and their new "family" eventually make a permanent home and are establishing a new order to their lives when the blindness lifts from the city en masse just as suddenly and inexplicably as it struck.