I used to think that the political novel died in 1948, with the publication of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. His precise destination may not have been reached by 1984, but the direction of travel was similar. Then, at the end of history, politics became a profession - and stories are, after all, about people, not quantity surveying.
So it looked a little odd to me when the novelist José Saramago spoke to the World Social Forum in Brazil a few years ago. What could a novelist have to say to an audience that in all probability had no use for novels?
I knew nothing of Saramago’s books myself, even though he’d been given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. True, a generation earlier there’d been a revolution in his native Portugal, which might have left a trace of vitality in the country’s political culture. But that had evidently been tranquilized by the European Union. The weight and melancholia of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, my one previous excursion into Portuguese literature, had not encouraged me to revisit the streets of fictional Lisbon.
Well, I’ve just finished reading my third Saramago novel in a row, and I’ve not read three novels by the same author since finishing B Traven’s ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ in my youth. What induced me to start with Saramago was a review by Ursula le Guin, herself a brilliant but rare exception to the current rule of self-absorbed novelists, in English at any rate. I can’t now recall exactly what she said about Saramago, but it was enough for me that she said it.
I began with ‘The Double’. There’s a history teacher who would prefer to teach history backwards. In the meantime he watches videotapes of B Movies. In one of them he sees a bit-part actor who, he becomes convinced, is his exact double. The teacher sets out to track down the actor. In the process Saramago takes the sceptical reader into a world of terrifying possibility, deftly subverting the politics of identity as he goes.
‘Blindness’ next - and one of the bleakest books I have ever read. A mysterious plague of ‘white blindness’ spreads through the population, with one exception – the wife of an ophthalmologist. We follow a small group of the first victims into a place of isolation, where the one woman who can see must pretend that she cannot. What happens next is much worse than one might readily have imagined for oneself. The politics of ‘community’ are duly torn apart.
Four years on, ‘Seeing’ revisits the same city, where sight has been restored but the plague of blindness is unmentionable. In an election, 70 per cent of the votes are cast blank. The Government of the Party on the Right orders another election. The Party on the Left believe that all blank votes were intended for them. The Party in the Middle equivocates. In the new election, blank votes increase. The Government treats this as terrorism, creates a state of siege and, together with the forces of law and order, quits the city. Life here continues peacefully enough, despite the best efforts of the Government to promote death and destruction.
‘These men and women,’ writes Saramago of the Government, ‘standing before the mirror of their life, spit every day in the face of what they were with the sputum of what they have become.’
Liberal democracy never looked so ugly.
In each of the three books Saramago uses the power of allegory to alter a common, very basic assumption: as individuals we are unique; as communities we can see; as a ‘body politic’ we can choose. But what if the world as it is looks more familiar, more convincing, otherwise? What becomes of us then? What has become of us already?
Saramago offers no consolation. Lies and deceit are powerful. But they are not always bought – by individuals, groups, cities. What makes Saramago so refreshingly different from most contemporary novelists is a sense of relationship between them. They are all, in their own way, protagonists in these novels. And the lies destroy everything, including themselves.
‘When we are born, when we enter this world,’ says one of Saramago’s characters, ‘it is as if we signed a pact for the rest of our life, but a day may come when we will ask ourselves Who signed this on my behalf.’
Without novelists, artists of any kind, to ask such questions, there can be no answers - whether we like them or not. If, in the rich world in particular, there is now a plague of myopic discontent, then it is both a cause and a consequence of there being too few writers like José Saramago. What endures through his books, despite everything, is honest, clear, brave, funny.
He is, I reckon, indispensable reading for our times.