Frontrunners: Post-Election Takeaways for Obama and Romney in Jose Saramago’s “Seeing”

To celebrate Tuesday’s proceedings – when Brooklynites and whoever else lives in America cast their votes for state and national candidates – Vol. 1 today presents the third and final installment of of Frontrunners: a short series examining novels about elections and their entrants. May these profiles celebrate both citizenship and the sensual art of civics itself. With any luck, the “absentee ballads” vetted here might even find their way to President Re-Up and Governor Sideburns, and offer both men solace and inspiration in the exhausting post-election days to come.

TODAY’S ADVENTURE: Seeing by Jose Saramago (Harcourt, 2006).

PARTY PLATFORM: On Election Day, in the capital of what may or may not be Saramago’s native Portugal, it’s raining so hard that almost no one shows up to vote. When the sky clears at 4pm, a mass riot of citizens swarm to do their civic duty, only for it to be revealed that three quarters of them have chosen to submit ballots that are totally blank, electing no one. When a do-over is held a week later, those three quarters rise to 83%. The neurotic incumbent freaks out, declaring a state of emergency and siege upon the city. Yet this phenomenon of rejected democracy is completely non-violent, and seemingly not part of any organized political effort. Why then did everyone choose to simultaneously stick it to the Man? What starts as wonky allegorical metafiction (in which our authorial narrator frequently regrets his own phrasing and metaphors, and candidly admits that he has no idea how to finish this story) soon becomes a crackerjack police dramedy, in which a rebel cop looks to learn whether this rampant un-voting has anything to do with an unsolved epidemic of citywide vision loss (chronicled in Saramago’s 1995 precursor Blindness) that struck the capital four years earlier, and the one woman who maintained her sight – and role as the town scapegoat – throughout that contagion.

LESSONS WITHIN FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: The only character in Seeing and Blindness given an actual name is a dog named Constant: everyone else goes by hearty descriptors like “the Representative of the Party of the Left” (or p.o.t.l).  It seems here that pooches have swagger during trying political times, and that Obama may want to rethink his acceptance speech assertion to Sasha and Malia that one family hound is plenty.

GUIDANCE FOR GOVERNOR ROMNEY: Those looking for closure and explicit explanations within Seeing‘s third act would find more satisfying spoilers inside Romney’s magic underpants, or the Mormon belief in Missouri as the original location of Jerusalem. Yet unlike those underpants, Seeing remains a fun ride. Saramago’s prime minister too is reminiscent at times of Romney’s faux-nostalgic wielding of church and state within the same fist: “The armed forces and police,” says the PM, “are charged with the patriotic task of leading the lost sheep back to the fold, if you will allow me to use an expression so beloved by our forefathers and so deeply rooted in our pastoral traditions… to ensure that those for are, for the moment, only our opponents do not become the enemies of the nation… may God go with you.”

SWAYING THE UNDECIDED VOTER: The book’s original Portuguese title Ensalo sobre a Lucidez (“An Essay on Lucidity”), suggests that at least in jest, it is a handbook for clarity in a partisan world. Yet Seeing‘s dialogue contains no quotation marks or line breaks, and little clarification of who is speaking, blending external voice and internal monologue a la Joyce, Gaddis, or your Astoria-based grandparents ramblings about the long voting booth lines and free Munchkins at their senior center.

EXIT POLL: The spectacle of the president’s re-election – and high hopes for assertive leadership, free(r) from GOP wrecking crews and the bog of punditry – recall an ominous line from Blindness: “Just as the habit does not make the monk, the sceptre does not make the king.”

Previously on Frontrunners: Philip Roth’s Our Gang, and V.S. Naipaul‘s The Suffrage of Elvira.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle + and our Tumblr.