Thus begins the allegorical and provocative novel Seeing by the late Portuguese Nobel Prize for Literature recipient, José Saramago. I picked up the book last year during the Presidential election and read the first page. I closed the book mumbling, I don’t want to read about elections right now. I’m seeing too much of it already, and proceeded to choose another book with less threatening words and ideas. But after the election of 2016, something said to me, “Time to read Seeing now.”
Terrible voting weather, remarked the presiding officer of polling station fourteen as he snapped shut his soaked umbrella and took off the raincoat that had proved of little use to him during the breathless forty-meter dash from the place where he had parked his car to the door through which, heart pounding, he had just appeared.
Saramago is one of the most — if not the most — sophisticated writers I’ve ever read. There is little punctuation; no quotation marks differentiate one character’s dialogue to another’s; the chapters are not titled or numbered; proper names are lower case; and oftentimes, the pages are blocks of words without a paragraph in-between. The novel reads as if the author inhaled a deep, deep breath and tells the story as he very slowly exhales. I asked myself, Why would he write the story without proper formatting? Does he want to confuse me, humiliate my lack of reading skills, or possibly cause me to breathe deeply and slow down in order to read more carefully, more thoughtfully, reflect upon what I’m reading as it relates to the time and society I live in? Is he showing me through allegory and metaphor to not be fooled, to perceive the differences between truth and injustice, to stand my ground no matter what opposition comes my way, to know what it means to truly see?
As I read more of the book, I began to hope for a happy ending. I began to hope the characters would win over their circumstances. I didn’t get that happy ending. But my sense is, if the story ended happily with lots of over-the-rainbow-colors, would I reflect as deeply about the precarious nature of democracy or the insidious allure of authoritarianism? Would I hope to possess a sympathetic heart for the underdog, for the common person who fights for truth even at the risk of personal peril?
Seeing is not easy for me to read. Whenever I picked up where I left off, I always had to retrace the steps to a previous place to begin reading again. I didn’t mind — this process of re-reading helped me understand the deeper meaning of Saramago’s story. He is a master storyteller, and what he wants us to see, what he wants us to understand, or at least to be aware of in our globalized world of the 21st century, is as important as when he lived and what he witnessed in his country of Portugal from 1926 to 1974.
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
Harcourt Books, First Harvest edition 2007