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'Seeing' starts with humor, ends with tragedy, and shines with humanity

By José Saramago
Harcourt, 307 pp., $25

To read José Saramago is to explore the frontiers of human nature. In his novels we encounter unthinkable evil and unspeakable goodness, baffling incompetence and stunning persistence, deep despair and unbounded hope. In ''Seeing," his heartwarming and heartbreaking new novel, Saramago revives his technique of tossing an allegorical dilemma at a group of people, then sifting through the chaos for the best nuggets of being.

In his 11th work of fiction, the 83-year-old Portuguese Nobel laureate guides us again to the city where, in his 1995 novel ''Blindness," every citizen went blind but one. ''Blindness" describes an ineffectual government-ordered quarantine and a city that falls into a bloody, animalistic melee. Its seeing heroine, referred to only as ''the doctor's wife," guides six companions to safety with courage.

The story in ''Seeing" is not as horrifying as its predecessor's. Its crisis is political. During the capital city's elections, four years after the blindness epidemic, 83 percent of the ballots cast are blank. The government, flabbergasted and embarrassed, places the city under siege and relocates, sure that chaos will ensue and teach the ''subversives" a lesson. But the freed masses live on in peace, despite the government's rhetorical and physical efforts to incite turmoil. When officials receive a letter revealing a long-kept secret of the doctor's wife and suggesting that she might be behind the blank-vote movement, they seize on her as a suspect and send in a police superintendent to investigate. Their relentless certainty of her guilt ignites yet another underground movement to prove her innocence.

For its first half, the book lacks a hero. Instead, we have a parade of blustering politicians, all unwittingly poised for Saramago's ruthless mocking. The Communist author's deep distrust of all things governmental has always blazed forth from his work, and ''Seeing" is no exception. In one hilarious scene, the superintendent and interior minister communicate via the code names ''puffin" and ''albatross"; elsewhere Saramago inserts nudging, half-joking references to democratic nations' handling of terrorism and torture. Without a compelling protagonist, the book early on is humorous but not extraordinary. Then, about halfway through his tale, Saramago finds an unlikely hero in the police superintendent and reintroduces the powerful figure of the doctor's wife. The comedy is consumed by drama. ''Seeing" ultimately turns out to be another of Saramago's great tragedies, with an ending to extinguish even the best of moods.

Throughout, Saramago displays the stylistic eccentricities that have become his hallmarks: his punctuation-free prose (only the comma works overtime), his page-long sentences, his clauses within clauses within clauses. But rather than tangle the narrative, these techniques propel it -- the next pair of parentheses you encounter will feel heavy, unnecessary. Here, as in all his work, Saramago's voice has a God-like quality, an omniscience laden with judgment but tempered by a wisdom that knows goodness when it spies it.

Yet while he will answer every question you could have about the meanings of life, love, and courage, Saramago will, as he did in ''Blindness," leave his primary mystery unsolved. We still don't know why everyone went blind. What we find, instead, is what Saramago has always pointed us to in lieu of literature's standard endings: the rare beacons of goodness that cut through the murky darkness of mankind. The satisfaction of a Saramago novel, like that of life itself, is rarely a resolution to its central drama; it is the people and moments one enjoys along the way.

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