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
I don’t think Saramago intends to confuse the reader, but his style does force the reader to pay attention. It is intimidating to see a page of words without paragraphs and sometimes you have to reread what you have read before. Saramago is best read in two or three sittings, to get the flow of his writing as well as his brilliance. Yes, he is a storyteller unlike anyone else. I’m sorry he’s not here to write more of his deeply meaningful books.
I agree, Sandra, that Saramago doesn’t intend to confuse the reader but to take the reader on a profound and provocative journey. It took me many sittings to read the book, but that is part of his journey, I think. I didn’t want to race through the novel, I wanted to understand what he understood. I wanted to listen to what he is telling us about oppression and fascism and freedom and the delicate dance of balance in-between. I will read “Blind” now that I have read “Seeing.” I too am sorry he’s not here to write more. I bet he’d have a lot to say.
Yes, I thought Ulysses and Thomas Pynchon and DF Wallace. I read somewhere that Pynchon didn’t even number his pages! I have so many books waiting to be read. Two books by a friend just out of prison. I started the first. It’s not very good, but … I feel obligated. I may not get to “SEEING.”.
I don’t know Thoma Pynchon. I’ll have to look him up now that you mention his name. Yes, so many books to read, isn’t it wonderful? Well, the book you’re reading now might not be a Pulitzer Prize winner, but it’s admirable that your friend has written two books. Not many people can say that. I’m curious if your friend wrote the books while in prison or after. I sense that one or the other place would influence the writing. How interesting books are and the people who write them!
Interesting. I’ll have to put that on my list. It sounds like the entire book was written the way the last chapter of Joyce’s “Ulysses” was. That was a difficult read as well. I don’t believe there is a correlation between difficulty and worthiness. I just believe that each story needs to be told in it’s own way, and some stories need the complexity and difficulty while others don’t.
Joyce’s “Ulysses” has been on my reading list for years and years. Maybe since I have read Saramago I can now read “Ulysses.” You are correct when you say “that each story needs to be told in its own way.” This is one of the reasons I liked this book so much, and admire Saramago’s courage to write in his voice, and not another voice because that is what the norm might be. I love that he writes with an almost abandon, avoiding the traps of the mundane. Thanks for the comment and the reminder Joyce is awaiting….