In these bizarre days, I sometimes feel like a character in a novel. Not necessarily a surreal novel, not fantasy and not magic realism. Rather like one of these anonymous characters in one of José Saramago’s abstract, hypothetical and almost academic novels.
Most of Saramago’s novels begin with an abstract thought experiment from which an elaborate plot unfolds. In his novel O Ensaio Sobre a Cegueira (Blindness) a mysterious epidemic of blindness affects almost everyone in an unnamed city. Most people in the city suddenly turn blind, from one day to the other. Then the usual reactions kick in, such as quarantine measures, the military sends those affected by the mysterious disease into overcrowded, filthy camps, where anarchy, violence and disorder reign. The sequel, O Ensaio sobre a Lucidez (Seeing), starts with the day parliamentary elections are held in an unnamed country, only that most of the people cast a blank ballot. On the following Sunday, the government repeats the elections, and even more voters cast a blank ballot. Instead of interrogating itself or reflecting on the potential reasons the country’s voters might have for casting a blank ballot, the government unleashes an aggressive campaign against its citizens, trying to destroy this protest movement that dared to sabotage the elections and mock the government. Another of Saramago’s novels, As intermitências da Morte (Death at Intervals), opens with the end of death. In an unnamed country, suddenly, from one day to the other, people stop dying. After many people initially celebrate this unusual development, it becomes clear very soon that the end of death poses extraordinary socio-economic and political challenges to this society in which death has ceased to exist. What started as a dream come true descends into a terrifying nightmare.
I have always regarded most of Saramago’s novels as intriguing thought experiments. Through the art of the novel, Saramago examines the potential political and socio-economic consequences that might unfold as a consequence of these hypothetical events. How would societies, governments, politicians, citizens react, change, behave if this or that really happened; if in an unnamed city most of its inhabitants became blind from one day to the other; if in an unnamed country, most citizens started to sabotage the national elections by casting a blank ballot; if from one day to the other, people no longer died!
What is happening at the moment in some countries around the world could also have been one of Saramago’s thought experiments (unwritten or unfinished perhaps). A novel that begins with a mysterious epidemic striking countries across the world. Almost all countries implement a complete national lockdown, quarantining the whole society for several weeks and months. Some governments react in rather predictable ways to the epidemic, echoing the storyline of O Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (Blindness): they masterfully exploit the situation to undermine democratic freedoms and introduce (or reinforce) authoritarian rule. Other governments, however, ridicule the disease (despite thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of infections), creating alternative facts and realities, mocking scientists, deriding rational thought and proudly looking the other way. And this is a thought experiment not even Saramago could have imagined.
José Saramago was an extraordinary writer! But life itself writes the most remarkable stories!