This is my review of Seeing by Jose Saramago.
Translated from the Portuguese, "Seeing" by the Nobel prize winner Saramago was published in 2004 as a sequel to "Blindness" which came out nine years previously.
"Seeing" can be read as a "standalone" although the final section makes more sense and has more poignancy if you have read "Blindness" which describes the rapid social breakdown after a nameless city is struck down by an epidemic of blindness in which everything appears white.
Whereas "Blindness" contains passages of almost unbearable but plausible violence and degradation, "Seeing" seems quite mild at first, more of a political satire. After a city election in which 83% of the votes casts are blank (parallel with white blindness?), the Government is uncertain how to respond to this apparent act of mass subversion, and takes a number of crass measures in which democracy and freedom are steadily crushed. Beneath the figurehead of a benign President, the Prime Minister assumes ever more roles as a sinister intelligence service exerts control in the background. The irony which seems to escape their leaders is that, far from breaking out into crime and disorder as predicted, people seem to behave much better when left to their own devices without being governed. Also, if they really start trying to organise themselves against the state, it is because they have been driven to it.
In a country like Portugal which experienced recent dictatorship, Saramago's vision seems very apposite, and his tendency to write in allegories is understandable. What is more, in view of recent unsettling events, growth of international monopolies and centralisation, endless proof of corruption and concealment, our growing disillusion with traditional parties and politicians, Saramago's parody seems very relevant.
The facetious style of "Seeing", so that at one point the author implies he is wondering how to finish the novel, makes the occasional acts of brutality all the more chilling, and because you know that Saramago is capable of utter ruthlessness, the anticipation of violence and tension can be quite high. Yet the novel is often very funny, such as the dialogue in which the interior minister, insisting on the code-name albatross inflicts bird names on his unfortunate superintendent (puffin) and all the other parties mentioned. This is all the more ironical since Saramoga never describes any of his characters by name.
This brings me on to the style, which was quite effective in "Blindness" by creating a flow of words to carry you through the horror, but which in "Seeing" can be quite confusing. I refer to the lack of paragraphs, to the exhausting multiple-clause sentences, and the suspension of normal punctuation of speech with inverted commas and a new line for each speaker.
"Seeing" has much more dialogue than "Blindness" and some sharp, amusing , play-like exchanges were marred for me by the problem of working out who is speaking. Even when I attempted to do this, I still wasn't always sure, and the rhythm of reading was destroyed in the process. It's also hard to refer back to a point in the dense mass of text without any "landmark" line breaks.
Whereas "Blindness" left me feeling upbeat – perhaps that the ending was "too happy" – "Seeing" had a more depressing aftertaste. Another of Saramoga's ironies. Despite the effort required to read him and the numerous often tedious digressions, Saramago's books are thought-provoking and last in one's memory.