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José Saramago: Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Seeing)

This novel follows on, to a certain degree, from Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness). It is set in the same fictitious country and the events in this novel take place four years after the events in Ensaio sobre a cegueira (Blindness). The country is going to have elections. There are three parties – the right wing, centre and left wing parties. They are not named. At the beginning we follow the story from polling station fourteen. The weather is awful. It is pouring with rain and even the polling officers are delayed. No-one turns up to vote, so that the polling officers phone their families to urge them to vote. The weather does clear up somewhat, later in the day, and more people do turn up. Suddenly, they are swamped with voters. The government has to allow extra time for voting. However, when the votes are counted in the capital, only twenty-five percent of the voters have voted for one of three parties. Seventy percent have submitted blank votes. The government feels that it has no choice but to order another election, which duly takes place. The weather was beautiful. Polling was orderly. Large numbers of voters turned out, though every voting queue had a police spy in it to determine why so many blank votes had been submitted. When the votes were counted, eighty-three percent of the voters had submitted blank votes.

Saramago proceeds to tell, in a mocking tone, how the government (the right-wing party) reacted to this situation. We listen in to many cabinet meetings where differing viewpoints generally vary from panic to massive repression. After deciding on a state of emergency, a state of siege is declared. The army moves in and there is a curfew. Should they declare a state of war? One or two brave souls point out that the voters have done nothing wrong, being perfectly entitled to cast a blank vote. But the government pushes on regardless. Eventually the government decides to leave the capital and set up a new capital elsewhere to punish the voters of the capital. The government, with Saramago mocking them both collectively and individually, commits one stupidity after another, with, in all cases, the people reacting in solidarity but not, contrary to what the government thinks, conspiratorially. The government is stumped and, inevitably, tries, unsuccessfully to find a scapegoat. The last third of the book is how they try to do this and who is to blame. Never once, do they think that ordinary people may just be tired of the government that they have had to tolerate over recent years. And, equally importantly, nor do we learn why the people do vote this way, except that it seems, for ordinary people, the right thing to do.

Saramago tells a wonderful story as always and just keeps the mocking tone at the right level, making the government and government officials looking foolish and clumsy, without descending into vicious, stereotyped satire. Indeed, many of the officials are thoroughly convincing and could clearly have been modelled on current officials in many of the world’s contemporary democracies. None of the characters is named, except by function, but Saramago still paints them as individuals, with their own feelings and views. Could it happen in any of the world’s democracies today? Of course, it could.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 2006 by Harvill
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa