About the book:
On election day in the capital, it is raining so hard that no one has bothered to come out to vote. The politicians are growing jittery. Should they reschedule the elections for another day? Around three o’clock, the rain finally stops. Promptly at four, voters rush to the polling stations, as if they had been ordered to appear.
But when the ballots are counted, more than 70 percent are blank. The citizens are rebellious. A state of emergency is declared. But are the authorities acting too precipitously? Or even blindly? The word evokes terrible memories of the plague of blindness that hit the city four years before, and of the one woman who kept her sight. Could she be behind the blank ballots? A police superintendent is put on the case.
What begins as a satire on governments and the sometimes dubious efficacy of the democratic system turns into something far more sinister. A singular novel from the author of Blindness.
About the author:
JOSÉ SARAMAGO is one of the most acclaimed writers in the world today. The author of numerous novels, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
1. The core crisis of this novel, and the foundation of its plot, is a so-called “blank revolution,” wherein 83 percent of the votes cast in an imagined capital city’s nationwide election are blank. Discuss SEEING as a critique of democratic elections—and of democracy itself. Try to include the ideas of blame, public trust, responsibility, liberty, individual expression, and civil rights in your discussion.
2. Shortly after learning of the pivotal election, we read that the nation’s minister of defense is “a civilian who had never even done his military service.” Explore SEEING as a work of political satire. Why did one critic call it a “timely fable”?
3. The weather almost-but-not-quite alters the unfolding of this story on at least two occasions. On election day, harsh rainfall comes close to causing a complete, citywide no-show at the polls; later, “a continuous, steady, monotonous rain, intense but not violent,” delays—and nearly cancels—the interior minister’s plan for “bombarding the city” with a presidential manifesto and other propaganda. So which, in the end, dominates in this story: the laws of Nature or the laws of Man?
4. One reviewer noted in his appraisal of SEEING that “Saramago’s capital city sometimes reminds one of Dr. Seuss’s Whoville.” Would you agree? Why or why not? Consider this: Although the capital’s citizens, in the wake of the blank-ballot incident, find themselves living in an anarchic “state of siege” marked by “amber alert” warnings, curfews, and later, total police and governmental abandonment, they exist in relative peace and harmony. Did this make sense to you? Explain.
5. Were you surprised to learn that the government was behind the explosion at the train station? Why or why not? Cite passages from the text to support your view. Also, describe how “terrorism” is viewed over the full course of this novel.
6. Ironic yet knowing, detached yet absorbed, philosophical yet teasing: Discuss the narrator of SEEING. Was he reliable to you, as a reader? Was he engaging? Was he funny? Defend your views with excerpts from the book. Also, how well—or, contrarily, how poorly—did the narrator serve this blatantly allegorical story?
7. At what point does it become clear that SEEING is a sequel of sorts to BLINDNESS, Saramago’s earlier novel? How does this revelation change the focus of SEEING itself—that is, what new characters, themes, situations, or plot lines are introduced? And, whether or not you’ve read BLINDNESS, do you think readers of SEEING must be familiar with that earlier book to appreciate this one?
8. During a tense and rueful conversation between the interior minister and the council leader early in this novel, we read the following exchange: “Don’t let the devil hear you, minister, The devil has such good hearing he doesn’t need things to be spoken out loud, Well, god helps us then, There’s no point asking him for help either, he was born stone-deaf.” And much later, we find this interrogative dialogue between the police superintendent and the doctor: “You’re not saying that the police are god are you, We are merely his modest representatives on earth, doctor, Oh, I thought they were the churches and the priests, The churches and the priests are only second in the ranks.” What, ultimately, does SEEING tell us on the subject of God? And what about morality and religion more generally?
9. Such well-known fictional inspectors as Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe are invoked in these pages, particularly in reference to the police superintendent and his two bumbling assistants. Can SEEING be read as a work of detective fiction, as a mystery? What crime, or crimes, are being investigated? What are the clues? What are the red herrings? And how, if at all, are they solved?
10. The prime minister, the president, the interior minister, the council leader, the police superintendent, the doctor’s wife, and so on—who is the lone character in this book with a proper name? (Hint: It’s “constant.”) Why do you think this is?
11. At numerous points during the police investigation that roughly occupies the second half of this book, various persons and activities are likened to, or else are distinguished from, “the kind of thing you only see in movies.” Is Saramago simply spoofing Hollywood at such moments, or is he making some sort of larger, broader, or more revealing statement? If you would affirm the latter, explain why.
12. Newspaper headlines are utilized on several occasions in the telling of this tale. What function(s) or purpose(s) do they serve? Explain whether and how Thomas Jefferson’s famous claim that “I’d rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers” can be applied to SEEING.
13. Who is “the man wearing the blue tie with white spots”? Who does he work for? What does he do? What’s his job? And what might he suggest symbolically?
14. Talk about ambiguity of the novel’s ending. What has happened? What has been done? What will next occur? What does the future hold for the capital city?
15. Finally, explain the novel’s introductory quotation (“Let’s howl, said the dog,” from THE BOOK OF VOICES). How would you apply it to Saramago’s story? And what about this novel’s title? Given that its precursor is entitled BLINDNESS, who or what does the “seeing” metaphor relate to, in your view?