Tuesday, May 04, 2010


The novel, SEEING, by the Portugese writer, Jose Saramago, is surely the ultimate book to read in election week.

Set in a mythical country, it starts with an election in which hardly anyone in the Capital turns up to vote. The Government hold a second election, threaten the populace who, to the politicians' satisfaction, queue up outside the election booths, but when the vote is counted, eighty three percent of the votes are blank. This isn't against the law, and no one is legally obliged to say how they voted, but the Government turn against their people. No one likes to be made a fool of.

They declare a siege on their capital, before they realise that they are in fact still living there. So they move to a different city, at night, in silence. The capital is no longer the capital until the people who live there remember their duty. Or at least until the Government can catch who is responsible for the movement that has become known as 'blankers.'

Trouble is there seems to be no ring leaders, and the only aggression comes from the Government itself. In fact, if anything, the blankers show that peaceful co-operation is stronger than any resistance.

Something needs to happen.

Then the Prime Minister is sent a poison pen letter pointing the finger of blame at one woman. At last the Government has a scapegoat. Three policemen are sent back into the capital for a secret mission - to catch this woman and force her to take responsibility. The trouble is that the Superintendent has a conscience. A statement he read once won't leave him alone:

"When we are born, when we enter this world, it is as if we signed a pace for the rest of our life, but a day may come when we will ask ourselves Who signed this on my behalf?

A metaphor running through this book is blindness.* What happens in a country when everyone goes blind, apart from one person? She can see perfectly. Therefore, the book points out, she has to be dangerous. The rest of the population are content to allow other people to see things on their behalf.

It's not an easy book to read - both in the terms of content and also style. The paragraphs run on for pages sometimes, allowing no break. The dialogue is not laid out line by line as someone speaks, but often a whole conversation between several people will form part of the same sentence. But this is a perfect example of form following theme. No one stands out. No one can be separated from the masses. It's hard to get a grip on the story.

It reminded me of the wonderful film, The Lives of Others, in its handling of the tricky question of what is goodness. I thought it just brilliant. And I picked it up at just the right time.

Come Friday morning, the one question I don't want to be asking is: 'Who signed this on my behalf?"

(* as explored in Blindness.)

1 comment:

paris parfait said...

The book sounds fascinating. And I loved The Lives of Others! Have been having a conversation this week w/ Brit husband about how every vote counts. He thinks in certain constituencies (i.e. Lewisham - before Paris, we lived in Blackheath) it is pointless to vote, as they always go for Labour. (He is disillusioned w/ Lab; leaning toward Lib Dem, but worried about economic situation w/o Labour). But I reminded him of the last three American elections and how critical the vote. So he did vote. Intriguing election; so much more civilised than the American ones.