Gray, John, New Statesman (1996)
Harvill Secker, 307pp, [pounds sterling]11.99
Perhaps the greatest of the novels of Jose Saramago is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984). Set in Lisbon in 1936, when the country was moving towards civil war, it tells of a middleaged doctor who has returned after many years abroad to a half-life of long walks and desultory love affairs, rising late and spending days alone in his hotel room. Ricardo Reis was one of the "heteronyms" of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), the incomparable Portuguese poet and novelist who wrote under dozens of different aliases, and in a beautifully crafted episode Reis is visited by Pessoa's shade, who tells him with a smile that he "dreamed that I was alive. An interesting illusion."
Unlike Saramago, a lifelong communist, Pessoa oscillated between a quirky conservatism and apolitical detachment, and never had any hopes of the future. If The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis has a moral, it is that this attitude of detachment cannot be sustained when the world is falling apart. But Saramago's novels are rarely straightforward parables, and his most recent is not easily decoded. First published in Portuguese in 2004, Seeing is a successor to Blindness (1995), in which an epidemic of blindness sweeps through an unnamed city and the victims are quarantined in an asylum. In Blindness, Saramago left open the question of whether the victims of the plague were better off for being unsighted in an ugly world. In Seeing, he plays with the metaphor of vision in a similarly ambiguous fashion.
The novel begins with an election in the same city that suffered the epidemic of blindness. Mysteriously, more than 70 per cent of the voters leave blank votes. Rather than failing to vote or spoiling the ballot papers, they have actively rejected the democratic process. In the crisis that follows, the government declares a state of emergency, sealing off the city and faking a terrorist attack. The population remains peaceful but disaffected, and the government receives a letter suggesting that the one person who remained sighted during the plague of blindness--a woman who managed to work as a doctor in the asylum by feigning loss of sight--may be behind the current malaise. At this point the book shifts gear. The rather cipher-like politicians and officials of the earlier sections are replaced by more humanly recognisable figures--plain-clothes policemen who are sent to investigate the causes of the outbreak of democratic passive resistance and the possible role of the doctor in it. …