In Other Words

A Hollow Mandate

Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Essay on Lucidity)
By José Saramago
330 pages, Lisbon: Editorial Caminho, 2004 (in Portuguese)

Suppose they gave a democracy and nobody came? Not an unreasonable question, given the dismal voter turnout in the recent elections for the European Parliament. It's a conundrum well suited to Portuguese writer José Saramago, who has made a career skewering the pretensions of Western politics. Saramago, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature, is a self-described "libertarian communist." Yet, he has always defied the expectations created by that label. None of his novels is about simplistic class struggle, much less a romanticized working class at the vanguard of history. Rather, his writings lament the imperfections of democracy, expose its perversions, and warn against the dangers that threaten its survival.

Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Essay on Lucidity) is not Saramago's first political novel. During a career that flourished in the last 20 years, Saramago has authored more than 30 works of prose and poetry, including Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (An Essay on Blindness), A Caverna (The Cavern), and Todos os Nomes (All the Names). But Essay on Lucidity contains his most overt political message to date: that civic indifference is threatening democracy. The book begins with municipal elections in an unnamed city in a generic Western nation. "A bad time to vote," the author notes in an ambiguous tone that is sustained throughout. We don't know whether he's referring to the inclement weather or something deeper. The big surprise is the election's outcome: Eighty-seven percent of the ballots are left blank, with the rest divided evenly among the dominant political parties of the right, center, and left. Instead of searching for an explanation, outraged government officials and party leaders (especially those of the right and the center) immediately set about finding the culprits for this challenge to the legitimacy of the system.

In Portugal, Essay on Lucidity's release was controversial. It was attacked by the political elite, welcomed by literary critics, and snatched up by the reading public. This response surprised no one, including Saramago, who is accustomed to controversy. His 1991 book O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) alienated him from the Portuguese establishment and effectively led him into a self-imposed exile on Lanzarote, the northernmost of Spain's Canary Islands. Manuel Veiga, a looming figure in Portugal's ruling Social Democratic Party, condemned Essay on Lucidity, calling it an "open door to bitterness." So did former Prime Minister Maria Pintasilgo. Mario Soares, ex-president and a patriarch of Portugal's democratic awakening in the 1980s, was more appreciative, calling the book "a wake-up call on the crisis of democracy."

It's no wonder the book jolted the Portuguese: After years of political and cultural isolation under a military dictatorship, of being Europe's social and economic backwater, they craved international recognition. But, far from celebrating his country's entry into the modern era, the Nobel prize-winning author bashes it and the much lauded integration process, lamenting that the traditional agrarian, Catholic, vaguely melancholic Portugal of old has lost its soul.

This tension is the hallmark of the book. Saramago offers no names, places, or other labels that might help readers peg his allegory to a specific nation. The lack of specificity makes it easy to see parallels between the novel and the reality of modern democracies afflicted by a new brand of political polarization -- not between those who vote and those who don't (what American author Gore Vidal labeled the true U.S. "bipartisanship"), but rather between those who vote for candidates or parties and those who cast blank ballots. Readers are left to believe that blank ballots are a vacuous form of protest, charged with ominous meaning. The recent European Union referendums, marked by widespread disaffection and indifference, lend an urgency and familiarity to Saramago's scenario that resonate with many readers.

Neither Saramago nor any of his characters ever explain the motives behind the blank ballots. Are they the result of general apathy, a feeling of emptiness, a quiet revolt against all politicians and politics in general? Amid the ensuing crisis in the wake of the election -- mass resignations, scheming, plotting, and a desperate search for a scapegoat -- the president of Saramago's hypothetical republic pompously denounces what he terms "a torpedo fired under the water line against the majestic ship of democracy."

Through its satirical distortions, the novel portrays democracy as shallow and soulless, a system in which deception and manipulation assure the perpetual incumbency of the powerful. A somber vision, no doubt, but not an entirely pessimistic one. Saramago seems convinced that, even in democracies, decent individuals and virtuous morals will somehow prevail, often when they're least expected. Following the wave of blank votes, the powers-that-be leave town to plot from the outskirts how best to punish and terrorize the population. They ultimately blame the debacle on an anarchist conspiracy, led by a doctor's wife. A curious relationship of mutual respect and admiration develops between her and the comisario (commissioner) dispatched to arrest her. Refusing to obey orders, he denounces the conspiracy to a tightly controlled press. They both end up being killed by paramilitary commandos, but emerge nevertheless as living symbols of moral strength precisely where one least expects it, as the type of people who "remain standing in defeat."

The target of the novel's deeper satire is the weakness of a democratic majority when confronted by a powerful minority upon whom the decision-making process relies. Saramago also criticizes democracy's capacity to manipulate the media and the "perverse privatization of the public domain" that ultimately immobilizes the individual. These dangers are at the heart of the protagonist's frequently repeated question, "Who has signed this for me?" In other words, what forces are determining the social compact by which I live?

Essay on Lucidity is a book in which citizens lose their ability to influence leaders and conduct politics. Saramago raises the specter of societies where people finally rebel by refusing to play the game, and by undermining the fundamental precepts of democracy. Is this a scenario that Saramago would like to encourage? Probably not. But it is a deeply unsettling possibility, particularly as conceived by a rich and original mind, a writer whose communism serves more as a provocation than as an ordered vision of history. In the end, Saramago does not propose an alternative to democracy, or any corrective measures for its dilapidated state. But his story demonstrates that civic participation can still be synonymous with lucidity -- and therein lies the force and efficacy of this literary call to political action.

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