Monday, June 26, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: Seeing by Jose Saramago

For its allegorical richness and its near-cinematic vividness, Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese fabulist Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, with its portrayals of tenuous interpersonal ties and often-horrific depictions of social disintegration, conjures up comparisons not only to Kafka and Camus but also, with its apocalyptic themes and night-of-the-living-dead settings and dread-beset characters, to movie director George Romero. One apt description touches upon the filmic phantasmagoric waste land as an unaccountable epidemic of “white blindness” strikes an unidentified city:

    "We’re going back to being primitive hordes," said the old man with the black eyepatch, "with the difference that we are not a few thousand men and women in an immense, unspoiled nature, but thousands of millions in an uprooted, exhausted world."

In Blindness the authorities start to confine the rapidly growing blind population to vacant and now armed-guarded mental hospitals. Within, hardened criminals among the blind take charge, as rapes occur and rations are stolen. Saramago ties all the disparate characters and thematic threads together, and sets an unrelenting and sustaining tone as he focuses on the actions and events surrounding one group of people whose affliction serves to point up how blindness -- the metaphoric stripping away “of the mirrors to the soul,” as the author reminds us -- loosens the fragility of human and psychic bonds, and divests us of the will and rationale to maintain them.

In this particular group, one eyewitness who pretends to be blind is central to the parable as she leads a seemingly random group of people -- the first blind man, the old man with the black eye patch, a girl with dark glasses, a motherless boy, and the “dog of tears” -- to the outside world that has become a chaotic world of the blind. Echoes of the Holocaust, Bosnia, and AIDS come to mind; real life means anything but release and reprieve, raising more parabolic questions and psychological quests even as sight returns.

As the title of Saramago’s sequel of sorts, Seeing, asserts, a little too handily and hackneyed, there are none so blind as those who will not see, as the post 9/11 specter of terrorism and civil rights issues, political polarization and paranoia is added to the allegorical mix. In the same capital city in which Blindness took place four years earlier, an anarchic situation is perceived during an election in which 70% of the ballots cast are blank. After a re-election is held, even more, 83% of the ballots, are blank -- with 8% for the party of the ruling right, 8% for the party of the middle, and 1% for the leftist party, a situation that leads to wildly divergent interpretations among the differing factions, from Bartleby-like apathetic expressions, to perceptions of civil disobedience or passive votes of no faith, to myopically-deciphered mandates and consequent assumptions of Katy-bar-the-door revolution as the rightist government, in the face of this “doubtlessly machiavellian” opposition, cracks-ups and cracks down with martial law and repressive draconian measures imposed by the prime minister.

Whatever the cause of this act of blindness, benign or malignant, Saramago effectively captures the Kafka-like surrealism and commotion in much the same manner as his earlier book, not just in allegorical substance but in accumulative style wherein the stream of run-on paragraphs and unpunctuated dialogue adds to the sense of chaos. It's an initially off-putting stumbling block that a reader quickly learns to hurdle, however, and soon enough settings and characterizations become breezily distinguishable.

It is in the cinematic cast wherein Saramago takes a U-turn from the Romero-esque cine-tension that vividly rendered the Orwellian paranoia and obsession suitably framed and inlayed within Blindness. “What amazes me,” notes one character about the permeating disquiet, “is that there isn’t a single shout, a single long live or down with, not a single slogan saying what it is the people want, just this threatening silence that sends shivers down your spine, Forget the horror movie language...”

I’m not sure that Monty Python and Keystone-cop police procedurals make for fitting alternatives, however -- it certainly does nothing to sustain the foreboding mood set up by the political crises. Consider the ultimate decision made by the government to confront the evil: Run Away! Or put in the more dignified language of rhetorical rationalization: the call is made for the “immediate removal of the government,” the police and the armed forces “to another city, which will become the country’s new capital.” The point being, to give the rebels a time out to think long and hard about just what they’ve done and who they‘ve hurt -- to understand, that is, “the price of being cut off from the sacrosanct unity of the nation, and when it can no longer stand the isolation, the indignity, and contempt” … well, they’ll come crawling back, “begging for forgiveness.” Ah, nothing like a little unrealpolitik to make impetuous insurrectionists see the error of their ways.

Saramago painstakingly describes -- in this disjointed, rudderless work lacking cohesion and insight -- the absurd and cartoonish after-midnight retreat ("shh! Be ve-wy, ve-wy quiet,” you almost expect to hear in Fuddish appeal). Which is no less painstaking than the belabored chapters describing the three “who’s-on-first” detectives who, ordered to proceed with foregone politically-expedient conclusions, are assigned to investigate the "conspiratorial" link between the “blindness” mystery and the current blank-votes scandal.

Incidentally, while the always-corrupt ruling party on the right and the opportunistic party in the middle are alternately bumbling or puppet-mastering their way to allegorical world domination, the almost-mythic party of the left, alluringly mysterious and always altruistic, is behaving with utmost dignity and valor, and with a forced hagiographic depiction of ethical uprightness. Because that’s the way it is in the real world.

A heavy-handed approach, compared to the sure touch of the earlier book. But more importantly, and just as straining to the literary merit, if not ideological concern, of Saramago, the two principal characters he entrusts to coming around to the promised state of “seeing” -- one due to close contact with the principal characters of Blindness -- jump to their conclusions without the support of reasoned analysis or thought, and reach respective epiphanies unconvincingly. The perplexed reader is left hanging, maybe for what should be the follow-up to Seeing: Believing.


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