Friday, 7 April 2017

Seeing, by José Saramago

Despite the heavy rain, the presiding officer at Polling Station 14 finds it odd that by midday on National Election day, only a handful of voters have turned out.
Puzzlement swiftly escalates to shock when eventually, after an extension, the final count reveals seventy per cent of the votes are blank - not spoiled, simply blank. National law decrees the election should be repeated eight days later. The result is worse; eighty-three per cent of the votes are blank. The incumbent government receives eight per cent and the opposition even less. The authorities, seized with panic, decamp from the capital and place it under a state of emergency.
In his new novel, José Saramago has deftly created the politician's ultimate nightmare: disillusionment not with one party, but with all, thereby rendering the entire democratic system useless. Seeing explores how simply this could be achieved and how devastating the results might be.
I read Blindness, Saramago's most famous (and also amazing) novel in 2013 and did not realise until half way through that this is the sequel. Perhaps a closer look at the titles would've illuminated me. Anyhow.

Seeing takes place in the same nameless city of the same nameless country (Portugal in mentioned, purely as an example). Only this time, the epidemic that seems to be sweeping across the nameless capital is political apathy. Political apathy which is confusing, unexplained and dangerous. Therefore it is swiftly upgraded to domestic terrorism; the city evacuated by the authorities and placed in a state of siege to sweat it out. The remorseless, treacherous inhabitants will stew until they are sorry.

The first part of the book is back and forth squabbling between the interior minister, the prime minister, the president and the exterior minister. All are, initially, aware that casting a blank vote is not an illegal act- what is and is not illegal is conveniently irrelevant during a state of siege. Good idea. After much discussion, observation of the chain of command, faffing about what should and should not be done and generally demonstrating perfectly why powerful men are essentially useless, the government seems to conclude that the people trapped within the city, 83% of whom cast blank votes, are enemies of the republic, miscreant anarchists with no respect for democracy or civilization. They declare them to have brought this all on themselves, with their savage, conspiratorial ways and the chaos and villainy that befalls them is their fault alone. Logic is the first casualty of this particular position. Truth swiftly follows. They have no plan. They have no sense. They have no courage or morality. They are politicians. They retreat, set up a border and see what happens.

After a period of siege, during which the besieged go about their business in a bemused, non violent and positively collaborative way, the government receive a letter. It it a letter from the first blind man, who four years ago fell in with a woman who retained her sight through the blindness epidemic. He tells of her leadership, her bravery, the fact that she did not go blind. Seizing this non existent connection between the previous and the current epidemic, the increasingly paranoid Governments gets a bee in its bonnet about bringing to justice the person that they believe to be the ringleader of this corrupting war on democracy- the doctor's wife. There is nobody else it could be; they will find the evidence to prove her guilt and expose her as the cold hearted criminal kingpin that she is.

The second part of the novel is three police officers, a superintendent, an inspector and a sergeant conducting an investigation into the supposedly suspicious activities of the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses and the man with an eye patch, the first blind man's ex wife and the dog of tears. The first blind man, he that wrote the letter, is not under suspicion, being a patriotic informer. He probably cast a valid vote. The boy with the squint cannot be traced.

Personally, I found this second section much easier to read. The internal struggle of the superintendent is kind of heart breaking to witness. He has been explicitly ordered to conduct an investigation, and implicitly (though no less clearly) told what its outcome is expected to be. To see a man wrestle with what is obviously a very finely tuned conscience is grim; to see him still try to stick to his moral code and be good at his job. I got quite attached to the superintend ant and his fatherly stewardship of his subordinates. I liked that he was occasionally insecure about his decisions, endearingly methodical and occasionally quite grumpy, but he's the novel's hero really. He sees the goodness in the doctor's wife from the first moment and his quest for evidence against her dies quickly.

Written in Saramago's margin to margin text, disregarding most punctuation and dialogue conventions, Seeing is a slow burner. The squabbling politicians, though deplorable and eye-rollingly, infuriatingly familiar, are never exactly exciting and are (I think) intentionally interchangeable. The novels is a fascinating and depressingly accurate satire on the ineptitude of politicians and their obsessive need to point the finger, to be seen to be solving things. To get their bravado on and be Big Men. Their hell-bent determination to pursue a pointless, destructive, impossible plan and to expect demand, the pie-in-the-sky outcomes that they dreamed up is bitterly recognisable.

The end of this book is just so horrifyingly unjust. So abrupt and unsatisfying. Not in a badly written, structural way, but in a "That's life, what's now?" kind of way. I'd love to know what the government did next. Their master plan- so expensive, so ill thought out, so destructive and morally bankrupt, has demonstrably failed. Now what? How are they going to manipulate their populace, now the crowds and even the papers have failed to back their crazy movement? It's that spiral of increasing desperation on the part of the powerful, decreasing influence on the part of the 99%.

If you have not read Blindness, definitely do that first. Then feel the impotent rage after you finish Seeing.

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