Saturday, January 1, 2011

From an absurd idea to the sublime

The book club is set to discuss José Saramago's novel, Blindness, in March. The book club is in for at treat. Blindness is brilliant. Saramago is brilliant. Blindness is a novel unlike anything you've read. Saramago isn't your usual novelist. Yes, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998. No, he doesn't use quotation marks to set off speech, he doesn't employ short readable paragraphs, and he loves the comma splice. (Just read the excerpt below.) And those, dear reader, are some of the things that make reading Saramago both a challenging and a rewarding experience.

I'll reserve my opinion on Blindness in the coming months. But to start off the year 2011, I've decided to read Seeing, a novel that somewhat serves as a sequel to Blindness. It touches tangentially some of the characters and themes of Blindness.

It's been 4 years since the epidemic of blindness has struck the unnamed nation in the Iberian peninsula. It's local election day, a day characterized by torrential rain that prevents the citizens from voting. At exactly 4 pm, the rains stop and the citizens queue up to vote. The following day, the government calls for another election. The first is declared a failure. Why? 70% of the ballots are blank. In the next election, the results are even dismal. Close to 80% of the ballots are blank.

The nation's government, fearful of this mysterious situation, decides to relocate the capital and leave the city's citizens to fend for themselves. It's a "punishment" of sorts imposed by the government on its citizens who have chosen to exercise their right of putting in a blank ballot.

Here is where a brilliant moment of irony lies in Saramago's narrative. For having not put any name or party on the ballot, the citizens clearly see that none of their options in the elections is favorable to them. Saramago has let the reader now that its citizens know that their officials are corrupt, prone to lay the blame on innocent civilians, and basically incompetent.
...Let's say that you provided the nothing and I contributed the whatsoever and that the nothing and the whatsoever together authorize me to state that the blank vote is as destructive a form of blindness as the first one, Either that or a form of clear-sightedness, said the minister of justice, What, asked the interior minister, who thought he must have misheard, I said that the blank vote could be sign as a sign of clear-sightedness on the part of those who used it, How dare you, in the middle of a cabinet meeting, utter such antidemocratic garbage, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, no one would think you were the minister justice, cried the minister of defense... [page 159]
In Blindness, Saramago focused more on the people, on a society where anarchy reigns in the absence of a government. In Seeing, Saramago does the reverse -- he highlights what the government does to its citizens, specifically, what the government does wrong. And in Seeing, there are a lot of things that the government screws up. First, they incited rebellion by placing bombs, setting them off, and blaming the citizens of the city who they have now called rebels. Second, they declared a state of emergency, imposed stricter laws, and shut off the city from the rest of the nation.

None of these government actions worked. On the other hand, the city's people become a peaceful and cooperative lot, helping one another even after a small group of them get turned away by the government. In this novel, Saramago writes about the goodness inherent in people, a goodness that will allow us to survive with or without the help of an othewise useless group such as the government.

Seeing is a satire. Among other things, it shows that our officials may not have the best intentions at all times. The president in the novel is a weakling, who bows to the prime minister, who's always in a power struggle with the interior minister. These 3 characters are so terribly pathetic, but you know that they do exist in real life. Scary, no?

I'm glad I started this year with a Saramago novel. Seeing isn't as brilliant as Blindness, but it will show the reader that people, deep inside, will do good things.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything written by Saramago.
  2. You like political satires.
  3. You love a challenging read.


C.B. James said...

I liked Blindness, though not as much as you. I thought it was a very well executed book, while not exactly ground breaking. The notion of a world gone blind has been explored in several science fiction novels before Saramago's.

I've not read Seeing so I'm hesitant to comment. From your description of it Saramago seems to be undermining much of his own argument in Blindness. In Blindness the absence of government left the characters at th mercy of thugs. Whoever was strongest ruled. Their attempts at cooperation were thwarted. You describe the same city as working things out in the absence of government in Seeing.

I wonder if Saramago's view of people had changed in the time between writing each novel.

I will say that there will be plenty for your book club to talk about. Saramago is not short on ideas, that's for sure.

Happy New Year.

Peter S. said...

Hi, C.B. James! My point exactly in Seeing! It's as if Saramago did a 180-degree turn on his views of the importance of government. He's such a writer with so many ideas!

Rise said...

Peter, I will definitely read a Saramago this year. It's been long overdue. Not 'Blindness' though. I already gave away my copy of it. I will most likely read 'Manual of Painting and Calligraphy.' It's his rarest book in translation and currently the most expensive. Don't ask me how I got copies. :p

Tina said...

Congratulations Peter! You've made the first addition of 2011 to my TBR pile. I read Blindness last year as part of an online group read in LibraryTHing. Thought it was definitely an awesome book. In fact, I also listened to the audio which had the added advantage of having to image everything 'blindly'--quite an interesting experience.

As a result of your excellent review of Seeing I'm going to be on the lookout for that one. I am a devoted Saramago fan, and have his latest one -an e-galley loaded on my ereader for review sometime next month. It's a short memoir of his early days titled Small memories. I can't imagine any memory associated with Saramago being small.

Hope your book club enjoys Blindness, and that you all have a great 2011.

Peter S. said...

@Rise: I am green with envy that you have that rare book of his.

@Tina: Wow! Small Memories! I can't wait to get a copy!

mel u said...

This sounds like a very good book-thanks for sharing it with us

Peter S. said...

You're welcome, Mel!

lyzacruz88 said...

Thanks for dropping by @ Lyza's Lane...echos! haha

wayne said...

Thank you for this suggetions
I'll read it
great blog
i'll list it on mine
bye wayne

Peter S. said...

@lyza: You're welcome!

@wayne: Thanks for dropping by!

JoanaG said...

Greetings from Portugal,

I was looking for random interesting blog through mine and I've found yours. I was amazed to read about José Saramago, he is one of very favourite authors and we have this thing in common, we are both Portuguese. I always feel very glad to see people around the world reading him, I try to let people know him and have friends that already looked for his books.

Have you read "Death With Interruption"? I am not sure if it is the only translated title used for the book. In Portuguese it is "As Intermitências da Morte", I'm sure you will love it.

Warm thoughts,

Peter S. said...

Hi, Joanna! I'm reading Death with Interruptions now and I'm loving it. I think I've read most of Saramago's works. He's one of my favorite authors!