An Ill-Timed Meditation on Allegory

Posted on | July 7, 2010 | Comments Off

After several days of wandering in the Israeli desert—this was less biblical than it sounds; a bus was involved—I returned from my vacation in the Middle East to learn that José Saramago was dead.  My forays into the strange world of Saramago have been admittedly limited: I’ve read only Blindness and Seeing. But I think of those two novels often, as they have come to embody my complicated, largely disapproving relationship with allegory.  Perhaps his death is not the most appropriate catalyst for a meditation on allegory, but Saramago strikes me as an unsentimental man. I’m going to imagine he’d give me a pass. safe online casino slots

It’s a matter of taste, but for whatever reason, allegorical fiction doesn’t really do it for me.  I think it’s also remarkably difficult to do well.  Too often, it makes for easy moralizing.  Too often, characters become the pawns of a political message.  Even Coetzee, whom I love, couldn’t quite win me with Waiting for the Barbarians.  Blindness has always been the exception to the not-quite-rule.  I remember finding its rawness shocking.  Saramago’s white blindness opened up a sensory world that allegory so often tries to explain away.

I was hoping Seeing, which appeared nearly a decade later, would match the brilliance of its predecessor.  Instead, I got a clumsy parable about the shortcomings of democracy.  Seeing is less a sequel to Blindness than its Nabokovian double: the second novel exaggerates the flaws of the first and casts them back in a darker light. The force of Blindness’s allegory arises from its political malleability—the novel does not try to dictate the terms in which it’s read. As Benjamin Kunkel suggests in a terrific essay on Saramago for Dissent, “Saramago’s allegories have a richness of overdetermined significance that places him more in Kafka’s company than in that of Orwell and the others.”  Perhaps the militancy of Saramago’s politics got in the way with Seeing, but for me, the novel was a case study in the pitfalls of letting symbolism do the heavy lifting.  The twin novels have come to represent the two sides of the proverbial (allegorical?) coin—the visionary and the didactic.

Saramago was a difficult, complicated writer, and whatever one thinks of his politics—an ardent Communist, he is best known on American shores for equating Israel’s actions in the second intifada with the Holocaust—his death is certainly fiction’s loss.  If there is one thing that comes of it, I hope it’s that people—myself included—read more of his work.


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