Seeing / José Saramago

Harcourt, 307 pp, $32.95, hardcover.

In the clearing after a massive rainstorm, voters in the capital flood to the polls and leave a bigger mess behind them: 70 percent of the ballots cast are blank. A follow-up election raises the tally over 80 percent and the government panics, starting a siege of the city to persuade its citizens “that the unfettered use of the blank ballot paper would make the democratic system unworkable”  and to end this threat to the legitimacy of its authority.

All manner of repressive measures are used or considered, progressing from infiltration and surveillance to a state-planted “terrorist”  bomb, interrogation of innocent “blankers” , media manipulation and censorship, walling the city in, leaflets dropped from helicopters, and other tactics eerily mirrored in today's news. In the process, the government becomes the very threat to order it sees in this gentle act of resistance (or, more properly, disengagement). But some among its number begin to see that this spontaneous legal rebellion poses no real threat, especially after citizens meet government attempts to inspire violent anarchy with peaceful nonchalance.

Readers of Saramago's Nobel-winning Blindness (1997) will be fami?liar with the stylistic tropes the octogenarian Portuguese novelist uses in this satirical fable. (The anonymous city is revealed midway as the setting of that novel's sudden and near-universal failing of vision only four years prior.) But for others, Saramago's long run-on sentences, punctuated only by commas and Caps””used to signify a shift in speakers in place of quotes””may take some getting used to.

It's worth the effort to combat what his narrator calls “chronic intellectual lazyitis” , because in this flattening of voice and general anonymity””characters are named by role or description alone””the unexpected humanity of these individuals' actions stands in heightened, magical relief.

Critical opinion on Seeing seems politically split””predictably, perhaps, given lines like his interior minister's speech to legitimate voters who attempt to flee the city: “It is up to you now to decide whether you are for us or against us.” 

And the inevitably dark ending reminds us all to “refuse to accept any lies in the name of a truth that is not your own” .