Saturday, February 10, 2007

That vision thing

I was significantly less than enthused when I learned that José Saramago had written a sequel to Blindness. Blindness is not one of my favorite books, but it is a very powerful work of literature. It is possibly the most relentless and brutally pessimistic take on human nature of any book, or at least great book, I have read. When an entire city inexplicably goes blind, society falls apart and the ugliest brutality imaginable reigns.

Normally, if I know I am going to read a book or see a film, I go out of my way to avoid finding out what it’s about. I like to see the work presented as its creator intended, without having been filtered through the opinions of others, no matter how much I might respect them. So when I discuss a work, I usually go to great lengths to avoid giving away plot details and try to focus on the craft of how the story is conceived, structured and presented. In this case, however, I don’t think it takes away anything from the reading experience to know that Blindness is about a whole society going blind or that Seeing is about a city in which most of the citizens cast blank ballots in an election. It’s kind of like knowing that The Godfather is about organized crime. The question is “how so?” Tangentially however, there seem to be an infinite number of stories about about organized crime, but to my knowledge, Saramago is unique in imagining the worlds we find in Blindness and Seeing.

Saramago is unique in a lot of ways. The most obvious is his writing style in which sentences can go on for pages and paragraphs for chapters and, within those long expositions different characters’ dialogue is not differentiated by any punctuation or line breaks. I know that sounds like some William Burroughs-like nightmare, but it actually works quite well. Saramago’s style may take a bit of getting used to, but once you tune into the rhythm and lyricism, it works very well.

Saramago is unique, or if not unique, he is a rare master at pulling off stories that are not character driven, or those in which the characters don’t have a lot of depth. Not all of his work is like that, but a good portion is. In Blindness and Seeing, for example, the characters don’t even have names. They are referred to as the “the girl with the dark glasses,” “the doctor’s wife,” the Minister of the Interior,“ ”the old man,“ and so on. And in many cases, abstract ideas become characters. In The Double. for example, Common Sense is an oft-recurring secondary character. In Seeing, the capital city is one of the main characters. And the narrator typically moves in and out of the story, most often seamlessly and in a literarily unusual manner. For me, style is a distant second to story and I have never enjoyed books that are all style and no story or in which the style gets in the way of the story. Saramago’s style does not get in the way of the story. I’m not exactly sure that it adds to it, but it works. It may, however, take some getting used to, so if you have never read Saramago and want to give it a go, be prepared to go through a period of adjustment.

Anyway, as noted above, I was not enthusiastic about there being a sequel to Blindness, but as I began reading it, the story quickly hooked me. Seeing turned out to be perhaps the most accessible of Saramago’s novels. As the story progressed to about the halfway point, I’d forgotten all about any relation to Blindness. As the repercussions of the city’s blank ballots escalated, I became ever more interested in how the story would be resolved. The government debates polices, steps are taken, absurdities abound. It’s very good stuff. But it began to seem as if there was no way out, as if Saramago had written himself into a corner. Then I came to following lines and laughed out loud:

Obviously, any reader who has been paying close attention to the meanderings of the plot, one of those analytical readers who expects a proper explanation for everything, would be sure to ask whether the conversation between the prime minister and the president of the republic was simply added at the last moment to justify such a change of direction, or if it simply had to happen because that was its destiny, from which would spring soon-to-be-revealed consequences, forcing the narrator to set aside the story he was intending to write and to follow the new course that had suddenly appeared on the navigation chart. It is difficult to give such an either-or question an answer likely to satisfy such a reader totally. Unless, of course the narrator were to be unusually frank and confess that he had never been quite sure how to bring to a successful conclusion this extraordinary tale of a city which, en masse, decided to return blank ballot papers...

And then the characters from Blindness are reintroduced. On one level, this confirmed my worst fears about there being a sequel. Saramago was lost in the plot, so he takes the lazy way out and brings in characters from his most acclaimed and popular novel. That’s gotta suck.

Much to my relief, however, it does not suck. At this point, I have to be very careful not to give anything away, so I’ll just end this part of the discussion with the observation that I found Seeing to be a thoroughly fascinating work of literature. It is one of those rare works of art that has stayed with me for at least a week after finishing it. The denouement is powerful.

As a postscript, I’ll just mention that mainstream reviews always comment on Saramago’s politics. He is reportedly a communist and an atheist and critics typically try to tie those personal attributes to whatever of Saramago’s stories they are reviewing. Much of Seeing is about politics. The city makes political statements and the government and police react in political ways. Yet I am loathe to describe it, or anything else I’ve read by Saramago, as a political novel. He is a great artist and no matter what political motivation he may or may not start with when writing a novel, the art takes over and the finished work is impossible to classify with any kind of concrete political position. So I wouldn’t read Saramago because you like books by leftists or not read him because you don’t. Read Saramago if you like great literature. And time will tell, but I think Seeing may be great literature, perhaps his best.