The longtime readers of this blog know that I like the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, and I especially like his novel Blindness. In the book, an epidemic of blindness sweeps the nation, and a band of travelers have to survive under quarantine. However, the sequel, Seeing, published in English in 2006, garnered rather unfavorable reviews, so I didn’t buy it until recently. I bought it and read it because I had recently visited several countries with oppressive governments and listened to the type of grumbling that leads to uprisings. I thought that since Seeing dealt explicitly with governmental oppression, perhaps it would resonate more with me after my travels. It didn’t.
The premise of Seeing is that all the people in an unnamed country go to the polls and leave the ballots blank. This is, in essence, a rejection of government itself, and the POV hovers on all the flummoxed ministers of the state. At least, the POV stays there for the first few chapters until it shifts to the leader of the town council, and then shifts to a police superintendent. Occasionally the POV flits off to anther character momentarily, and while this POV shifting is not an activity that I would universally condemn, it’s one that certainly (in this case) lessens the emotional punch because I can’t track with a single character and identify with them.
What makes this sequel crumple under scrutiny is the afflictions that plague most sequels. It depends too much on characters created in the original. And not only depends on them, but uses them without further character development, uses them as props to aid the story. The second half of the novel brings back the whole cast of Blindness, but only as the objects of an investigation – they don’t really get to do anything.
Also, the themes smoothly developed in Blindness (oppression by the government, inhumanity of human nature, the restructuring of society) are hammered in Seeing. Saramago tries too hard to make you get his point, pounding away with dialogue and sharp observations by the collective narrator. The history of blindness, mentioned as happening four years ago in Seeing, was left for the reader to extrapolate meaning from in the original, but here in the sequel, there are multiple passages that explicitly link the plague of blindness with the plague of blank ballots. As if that wasn’t enough, he also introduces the meta-fictional tool of talking directly to the reader, to show that telling the story alone isn’t good enough to communicate his ideas (not that I have anything against metafiction, but I am disconcerted by essays inside stories).
There’s a fine line between telling a moving fable that communicates an idea (a “novel of ideas”) and offering a political tract (a “thesis novel”). With this sequel, Saramago’s gone from the former to the latter. Another European writer has stepped on both sides of this divide: Italo Calvino. I love the mysterious, haunting qualities of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which resists the impulse to lecture or admonish, but find that his political short stories, such as the Numbers in the Dark collection, might as well be written in the form of a manifesto. It’s as though both of these writers occasionally forget their professions as writers and step into an alternative career path as indoctrinators. They’re much more entertaining when they simply remember to tell their stories.
As far as new stories, Saramago published the novel As Intermitencias da Morte in 2005. The first line: “The next day no one died.” No word yet on the English title or publication date, but judging from the rate of Blindness and Seeing, it should come out late 2007 or early 2008. This blurb from adnkronos tells a bit more:
Portuguese writer Jose’ Saramago, Nobel prize winner for literature in 1998, will contemporarily launch his new novel in six European and South American nations in the next month of October. The first edition of the book, entitled in Portuguese ”As intermitencias da morte” [The Intermittence of Death], will be published in Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Portugal and Italy (in this case translated by Einaudi). This is the first time that a work by Saramago appears simultaneously: previous works have appeared in Portuguese with translations starting months later.