Perhaps the greatest of the novels of José Saramago is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984). Set in Lisbon in 1936, when the country was moving towards civil war, it tells of a middle-aged doctor who has returned after many years abroad to a half-life of long walks and desultory love affairs, rising late and spending days alone in his hotel room. Ricardo Reis was one of the "heteronyms" of Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), the incomparable Portuguese poet and novelist who wrote under dozens of different aliases, and in a beautifully crafted episode Reis is visited by Pessoa's shade, who tells him with a smile that he "dreamed that I was alive. An interesting illusion."
Unlike Saramago, a lifelong communist, Pessoa oscillated between a quirky conservatism and apolitical detachment, and never had any hopes of the future. If The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis has a moral, it is that this attitude of detachment cannot be sustained when the world is falling apart. But Saramago's novels are rarely straightforward parables, and his most recent is not easily decoded. First published in Portuguese in 2004, Seeing is a successor to Blindness (1995), in which an epidemic of blindness sweeps through an unnamed city and the victims are quarantined in an asylum. In Blindness, Saramago left open the question of whether the victims of the plague were better off for being unsighted in an ugly world. In Seeing, he plays with the metaphor of vision in a similarly ambiguous fashion.
The novel begins with an election in the same city that suffered the epidemic of blindness. Mysteriously, more than 70 per cent of the voters leave blank votes. Rather than failing to vote or spoiling the ballot papers, they have actively rejected the democratic process. In the crisis that follows, the government declares a state of emergency, sealing off the city and faking a terrorist attack. The population remains peaceful but disaffected, and the government receives a letter suggesting that the one person who remained sighted during the plague of blindness - a woman who managed to work as a doctor in the asylum by feigning loss of sight - may be behind the current malaise. At this point the book shifts gear. The rather cipher-like politicians and officials of the earlier sections are replaced by more humanly recognisable figures - plain-clothes policemen who are sent to investigate the causes of the outbreak of democratic passive resistance and the possible role of the doctor in it. The story ends violently: its last lines describe two anonymous blind men talking against a background of gunfire.
Read as political allegory, Seeing is a powerful commentary on contemporary politics, relentless in its demystifying assault on the illusion of democratic choice that sustains governments throughout much of the world. In interviews, Saramago has stated that we live in a plutocracy: liberal democracies pretend to be forms of self-government, when in reality they are devices for managing capitalism. It is a simple enough thought, and by deploying the conceit of an election that delivers no result, he helps the reader perceive the emptiness of much that passes for democratic participation. Yet precisely because Seeing conveys this not-unfamiliar message, the reader is left wondering if it contains a hidden subtext.
The second half of the book shows one of the undercover officers who are charged with investigating the doctor undergoing a crisis of conscience in which his certainties desert him. The pain of the policeman is more credible than the unforgiving satire the book directs against politicians and functionaries, and it is here that the book's subtext may be found. Seeing is a profound fable, but it is more visionary in its depiction of powerless insight than in its picture of blind politicians.
If this is not one of Saramago's best books, it may be because its strength is in expressing a view of the world he himself repudiates. Saramago remains a member of the Communist Party, and as such his way of thinking continues to be shaped by the most stupendous illusion of the 20th century. The communist parties aimed to build a world without power, but they presided over tyranny of a scope and intensity the world has rarely known. Lacking even the problematic legitimacy of western democracy, they collapsed, leaving a legacy of crime and corruption.
At some level Saramago must realise that his political hopes are delusive and absurd. In Seeing, he blinds himself to this fact while allowing his characters the dubious gift of sight. Contrary to everything Saramago wishes to believe, the book is haunted by the thought that the world's most serious problems have no political solution. It is as if the ghost of Pessoa had re- appeared, smiling, to mock him in his dreams. l
John Gray's most recent book is "Heresies: against progress and other illusions" (Granta)