Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation


“O disco amarelo iluminou-se” is the first sentence of the first novel I read in Portuguese: ‘Blindness’, by José Saramago. It means “the yellow light came on”, and (although it took for a few seconds to work this out at the time) it refers to a traffic light. The first driver in a line of cars has suddenly been struck by a mysterious blindness which will go on to infect all but one of the inhabitants of an unnamed city, causing the authorities to panic and impose martial rule as society breaks down more or less overnight. One key to the novel lies in the fact that the Latin word for ‘city'(civitas) is also related to ‘civilisation’; when the basic signs and codes that regulate civilised behaviour lose their meaning, we may as well all be blind. ‘Blindness’ is probably the novel I’ve read more times than any other. I’m always slightly surprised to come across people who haven’t heard of it as it has always struck me as a fundamental insight into the times we are living through.

Both the city and the country in the novel are unnamed, and the film of the book was shot in Tokyo, Toronto and São Paulo. Three of Saramago’s subsequent novels are set in similarly anonymous urban environments: ‘Seeing’, ‘All the Names’, and ‘The Cave’*. When, in 2006, a particular set of circumstances led me to take a Master’s course in Portuguese Studies which entailed writing a 15,000-word dissertation, I decided to connect those novels with an area I was becoming increasingly interested in: Urban Geography. I read writers such as Henri Lefebvre, Mike Davis, Teresa Caldeira and learned about the notion of the right to the city in a world increasing divided between neoliberal dreamworlds on the one hand and nightmarish slums on the other. The thinker I learned most from, however, was the world’s leading urban geographer, David Harvey, who actually looks a bit like a cross between Karl Marx and God. There are passages of his books you could dance to, punching-the-air kind of dancing. This video is a great visualisation of how his lucid style makes it beautifully easy to understand complex subjects.

The Master’s course was, then, a pretext to learn about the world through the prism of a limited range of countries. Learning about Portugal’s history of empire and loss of empire helped me reflect on my own country’s shameful past. Going back to writing essays after a 13-year break also made me reassess my relationship to ‘my’ language. My dissertation supervisor, who was from Mozambique but had lived and worked in English for more years than I had, once corrected something I had written, changing ‘in doing so’ to ‘in so doing’. Given that my livelihood is based on claiming authority over the English language, it was quite a salutary moment. (The difference is actually one of formality, but I thankfully had the humility not to try to pull rank.) Writing such a long-form piece helped me reflect on my command of written English. My natural style is actually not that different from Saramago’s, one which some people find rambling and irritating. The original title of ‘Blindness’ was ‘Ensaio Sobre A Cegueira’ (an essay on blindness), after the style of Montaigne, and his novels read like extended reflections, conversational in tone and consisting of digressive explorations of ideas rather than compelling plots and detailed characterisation. Writing about his work in an academic setting forced me to employ a more direct approach than I’m naturally inclined to adopt.

Throughout the course modules and during my dissertation research I learned about the depth and contours of my ignorance of the world and tried to fill in some of the massive gaps. The experience helped me learn that not everyone knows everything, and that knowledge in an academic context is often very specialised**. In around 2008 I got talking to David Harvey himself at an annual summer conference in Central London, and over a couple of pints and a LOT of crisps he said that my topic sounded interesting but he’d never heard of Saramago. I meant to put this information in the essay, along with a footnote boasting that it was revealed in a personal conversation, but sadly I forgot.

For a while I planned to turn my dissertation into a PhD but, although I did discuss the possibility during trips to Coimbra and Rio, it didn’t happen. Maybe that’s a good thing – I could quite happily waste the rest of my life in a good university library. While a friend of mine took 14 years to finish his PhD thesis, I reckon I would be the first to take 1,400. I did, however, end up back at the same university (King’s College London) in a working capacity. Last summer I was preparing Chinese students to take postgraduate courses, so I thought it would be fun to show them the short essay I’d written exactly ten years earlier when I was applying to do a Master’s at the same institution. (The essay is here, but it’s a bit crap.) Towards the end of the course, as we were working on writing abstract-style summaries, I proudly showed them the one I’d written for my eventual Meisterwork and was simultaneously chastened and impressed when they pointed out that among its 150 words there was a blindingly obvious typo.

I was already thinking that it might be fun to write something here about Saramago when it struck me as weird that something that took me so long to write has been read by so few people. Therefore I’m posting it here for the ages. It’s never been published (for at least two very good reasons) so it may be that someone researching or just interested in the topic will find it useful. I’m sure there are bits of it I would now change, with some sections underdeveloped and some overreliance on and/or misrepresentation of other people’s ideas, but in any case here it is, verrugas e tudo.

*Not that those are necessarily the best Saramago novels to start with, I would recommend ‘The Double’ if you’re not familiar with his work as it’s much more of a philosophical pageturner.

** For example, geologists often know almost nothing about climate science, especially those who are being specifically and handsomely paid for their ignorance of the topic.

The city in four novels by José Saramago


This dissertation attempts to map ideas and insights about the contemporary city onto four novels by Saramago: Blindness, All the Names, The Cave and Seeing. All four novels portray to varying degrees dehumanising urban dystopias. This essay uses the work of theorists such as Henri Lefebvre, Walter Benjamin Marc Auge and Giorgio Agamben to look at how and where utopian moments emerge in the novels and how Saramago’s work in turn can imaginatively inform our understanding of the urban condition. It argues that the novels can be read as an important contributions to debates around the ‘right to the city’.


Introduction 3

  1. The Cave: The city is no longer there 

  2. All the Names: Sr José’s adventures in the in the urban labyrinth

  3. Blindness: ‘The city was still there’ 

  4. Seeing: The city takes the matter into its own hands



The final sentence in José Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness1 reads, ‘The city was still there’; in a subsequent novel, The Cave2 the city as we might recognise it has all but disappeared and been replaced by a fractured, desolate post-urban environment. All the Names3 is the tale of an individual who might be said to be lost in an urban labyrinth, while Seeing4 is about a city which finds itself under siege by its own Government.

Blindness, All the Names and The Cave make up what Saramago originally intended to be a trilogy, while Seeing was written as a sequel to Blindness. For that reason I will treat the four novels as a quartet. They are all set in or around anonymous cities, in an unnamed country, with mostly anonymous characters. In the course of the first novel an unexplained epidemic of blindness has caused the urban fabric to fall apart and civil society has effectively collapsed, but somehow ‘the city’ has managed to survive; we witness what occurs through the eyes of the one person who does not go blind, known only as the doctor’s wife. In All the Names, a nondescript clerk in the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages follows the thread of an unknown woman whose record he encounters and about whom he develops an obsession which comes to threaten the foundations of his identity. In The Cave a potter and his family try and fail to survive economically in the midst of a desolate post-urban landscape, governed by global market forces embodied in a gigantic and voraciously expanding shopping Centre. Finally, in Seeing an unnamed city is placed under siege by the authorities, who have withdrawn from the city after the votes in two successive municipal elections are revealed to be almost all blank. By the end of the novel, however, the city is said to have ‘taken the matter into its own hands’.

These novels all to varying extents depict dystopian urban environments. In this sense they have antecedents in two particular earlier works by Saramago. In the short story Coisas5 (Things) the inanimate objects in a city suddenly start to rebel and to disappear, leading to social collapse. In the poem O Ano de 19936 (The Year of 1993), a brutal and impersonal occupying authority oppresses the inhabitants of an unnamed city until they revolt and take back control of the city. From this perspective, then, the shift in theme and tone that has often been identified in Saramagos work, from historically-based fiction to Kafkaesque fables of dehumanising urban dystopias, is partly a further development of earlier themes and obsessions. They are not the only Saramago novels to portray the effects of an unexplained cataclysm on society; in The Stone Raft7 and Death at Intervals8 an unforeseen crisis is unleashed by some unforeseen event which resists any attempts at rational explanation or interpretation. In both novels we see the effects of such a crisis on an entire country, whereas Seeing and Blindness both take place exclusively inside a city; a city which eventually transpires to be the same one. As with both The Cave and All the Names this city is unnamed, and unidentifiable in the absence of any recognisable landmarks or temporal references.

According to Horacio Costa, Saramago has a love-hate relationship with the city9. Most of his earlier novels such as The year of the death of Ricardo Reis10, Baltasar and Blimunda11 and The history of the siege of Lisbon12 are set in and around Lisbon. Costa argues that Lisbon is like Dublin for James Joyce: the central character in Saramago’s novels, poems and essays. He explores its history, its geography, its human archaeology. Whereas for Saramago Lisbon is the city as historical and geographical place, a site of recognition, identity and belonging, the cities in the novels beginning with Blindness are non-places, devoid of historical or geographic identity. The environment portrayed is a dystopian and dehumanising one of alienation, anonymity and disconnection. Costa writes that Saramago’s concern in the later novels is to allegorise the uses and abuses of power, and to dramatise the urban as a place of the exercise of power13.

Nevertheless, I will argue that the urban form itself its not under attack in these novels. As I mention in the chapter dealing with The Cave, there is no gemeinschaft nostalgia for a pre-urban existence. I will in fact argue that there are throughout the novels a number of essentially utopian moments of solidarity, community and reclaiming the city. The city is revealed in a series of epiphanies to be a place of the possibility of meaning; the city contains within it the possibility of its own redemption.

It may be worth noting that when I speak of utopian moments and spaces I am evoking the literary tradition of utopia rather than its literal Greek sense of a non-place (ou-topos), and when I use the term non-place I am referring specifically to the concept developed by Marc Augé of the ‘non-place’ as the paradigmatic space of supermodernity. Auge writes that the non-place as he defines it, a historically and geographically empty space, is the opposite of utopia14.

As previously mentioned, the four novels address the theme of the city in a variety of different ways. Although each novel can however be read in part as a different ‘take’ on the urban experience and the notion of ‘the city’, it must also be acknowledged that none of the four novels can be said to be exclusively ‘about’ urban issues. There are also a very large number of often very dense philosophical themes throughout the works which, even where touched upon here, fall beyond the scope of this essay to explore with any depth.

The structure of the dissertation will take the following form. I will address each of the four works individually, beginning with The Cave and then All the Names, Blindness and finally Seeing. I will draw out the strands in each novel which connect to different theories regarding urban experience, and looking at the ways in which Saramago both constructs and deconstructs the notion of the city, and how the different elements in the novels correspond to each other. I will conclude with a brief summary of my main arguments.

  1. The Cave: The city is no longer there

In the words of Henri Lefebvre, ‘There is no urban reality without a centre’15. The landscape of José Saramago’s The Cave is dominated by a complex called ‘The Centre’, a cavernous combination of shopping mall, theme park and residential complex. The novel’s Centre is not at the centre of the city as such, but seems to have replaced the city. ‘The city proper’16 is said to be elsewhere, but we do not visit it. We witness instead the ‘unstoppable territorial expansion’ of the Centre, which has ‘right from the start been swallowing up streets, squares, whole districts’17. It is dominant spatially, economically and socially:

‘The best way to explain the Centre is to think of it as a city within a city…there are all the things you would expect to find in a city, shops, people walking about, buying things, talking, eating, having fun, walking…but whenever I look at the Centre from the outside, I have the feeling that it’s bigger than the city itself.’18

All roads go to the Centre19, and all the characters’ eyes are ‘fixed on the centre’20. The landscape outside the Centre is by definition peripheral. The Centre resembles a city but also stands as a symbol of the accumulation and hoarding of wealth and power and the market’s domination of different spheres of collective urban experience and activity. Access to the Centre is guarded, and its interior is carefully controlled and monitored. It is partly in this sense that the landscape of the novel exemplifies the thesis of those who describe the post-modern urban environment as constituting a ‘return to the medieval city’21.

The novel’s main character, Cipriano Algor, lives outside the Centre in a decaying rural zone, described in terms of putrefaction, desolation, abandon and neglect22. Clearly this is ‘no Heideggerian atavistic model of authenticity and the good life’23, nor a critique of ‘the loneliness of the urban crowd and the folksy gemeinschaft of the backwater’24. The residue of rural life in which he resides and works has already been corroded by the dependence of the peri-urban populations upon the Centre.

The trajectory that takes Cipriano from his village to the Centre passes through a series of zones, known as the Agricultural and Industrial Belts. He also passes an area which is being contested by the socially excluded of the slums. Along this trajectory we see how space is being reorganised and reconfigured in order to serve the needs of the Centre. Right at the start of the novel we learn that the dispersal of the slum population is part of a ‘third phase’ of operations. This is described in military terms: the city buildings advance like ‘a line of riflemen’25.

What is absent from the landscape which the Centre produces and monopolises is what Lefebvre calls the city as oeuvre, as a ‘lived space’ produced by its citizens in the processes and relations which form their daily lives, a spatial and social product of human relationships26. The spatial and economic dominance of the Centre illustrates the ways in which space under late capitalism has become dominated by the instrumental and abstract needs of capital accumulation and exchange value. In this novel we are not just dealing with the phenomenon of shopping centres per se, but the ways in which cities are being transformed in what David Harvey terms a collective project to reshape the urban world27, according to an agenda which Mike Davis calls ‘criminal in its fervid desire to do the city in, for sound economic reasons’28. This involves turning the city into the site, indeed the means of capital accumulation rather than of collective participation and exchange. The following description of the new post-Olympics Beijing serves as a useful description of the fragmented geography of The Cave: ‘a city without urbanity, where megalomaniacal architectural objects are built on the ashes of an organic urban fabric’29.

Saramago’s novel echoes Lefebvre’s remark that the ‘commercial centres of cities are only a dull and mutilated version of what was the core of the old city, [which was] at one and the same time religious, intellectual, political and productive’30. For Lefebvre, the right of the citizen to centrality – to participate in the life of the city as part of their everyday life – is something which has been usurped and he makes this notion central to what he calls the ‘Right to the City’31. This is a theme we shall explore in more depth in the discussion of Seeing, in chapter 4.

The landscape of The Cave can therefore be characterised as that of the ‘anti-urban city’32, a geography resulting from ‘the two-hundred year process that has emptied the street and swollen to the extreme the sphere of possession’33. The reference to the ‘hierarchical configurations’34 which the Centre imposes evokes the distinction between horizontal relations of reciprocity and solidarity, and vertical ones of power and dominance35. This is exemplified by what is called the ‘exact relationship’ between the Centre and the city as set out on one of its advertising hoardings: ‘You’re our best customer, but don’t tell your neighbour’36. The vertical relations that the Centre imposes serve to undermine the horizontal relationships between people outside the Centre, which are the result of shared experience rather than instrumental exchange value; the novel shows how such relationships are becoming increasingly less sustainable, and that the people who try to maintain some independence from the Centre are ‘living on an island that gets smaller’37. The ‘Small, low tech factories’ will ‘not last long’38; the needs of monopolistic capital accumulation for dominance will ‘pitilessly sweep everything away’39. A key theme of the novel is that of deterritorialization, with people forced to follow the ‘flow from the countryside into the city, from factories into services, from stability into fragility’40. Outside the Centre is merely the hinterland. The ‘dead’ space (with reference, again, to Lefebvre’s notion of ‘lived space’) of the Centre and also the industrial and agricultural zones monopolises the economic landscape, and ‘the shops in the city are having a real struggle just to keep their heads above water’41.

The appropriation of space is contested, most explicitly in the battles between the slum dwellers and the police, but it is clearly the needs of capital accumulation and exchange value which are in the ascendency. The peripheral areas are falling victim to economic crisis, insecurity, and rationalisation, and the people who inhabit those areas are described as survivors of a ‘shipwreck’42. The despoiled environment outside the spectacular world of the Centre resembles a ‘desert of the real’43.

One of the central dynamics of the novel is the distinction it draws between the Centre as a non-place produced by the needs of the abstract forces of capital accumulation and exchange value, and the rootedness of lived space. Cipriano Algor’s house and the kiln where he produces his pottery are characterised in terms of a sentimental attachment based on its use by successive generations of potters. This is contrasted with the instrumental, dependent relationships that the characters maintain with the Centre. The movement between the two is illustrated by the main character’s journeys to and from the Centre and also the growing possibility that he will soon have to abandon the pottery and go and live with his daughter and her security guard husband inside the Centre, something the potter is reluctant to do. When he returns home from the Centre it is ‘as if the house were saying to him, I’m waiting for you’44. Cipriano’s daughter looks at the mulberry tree that grows next to the house, and ‘She loved the places the way a tree, if it could, would love the roots that fed it’45.

Cipriano also visits the nearby cemetery where his wife is buried, and glumly predicts that ‘In 100 years’ time, it will be impossible to know who is buried beneath these mounds of mud’46. He also reflects that ‘The kiln won’t deserve the name of kiln if someone doesn’t call it that every day’47. A contrast is constantly drawn between affective, lived space (including, ironically, the cemetery) and the non-place of the Centre. The characters outside the Centre have names rather than merely roles, and enact forms of reciprocal exchange which contrast with that of exchange value, based as they are on affective bonds and on use value. An important element here is the relationship that the potter develops with his neighbour Isaura Estudiosa, which begins when he offers to give her a water jug to replace one which is broken48.

The earth diggers which are destroying the slum area are also destroying ‘the place where a shadow once fell and where it will never fall again’49. This recalls Steven Pile’s exploration of the city as a place which is haunted by the lived experience of current and former generations50. If a place, and by extension that oeuvre that constitutes the city, is haunted, then the Centre does not qualify as a place, or indeed as a ‘city’ in the sense that, say, Berlin does for Walter Benjamin. It is rumoured that no-one dies in the Centre; a place in which no-one dies cannot be haunted.

Alexandre Barone argues that the non-place as defined by Marc Augé ‘forms the central structure of the novel’51. A non-place is somewhere from which all historical and geographical markings have been obliterated, and in which the identity of the people who use, pass through or inhabit that space is of no or little concern52. Upon entering Saramago’s Centre, all identifying characteristics are erased to the extent that the potter’s own son-in-law, who works as a security guard in the Centre, professes not to recognise Cipriano inside the Centre53. All affective ties are erased by an impersonality immediately reminiscent of Kafka: ‘We don’t take messages’, Marta is told by one of Marcal’s colleagues54, and in relation to Cipriano’s protests of unfair treatment he is merely told, ‘That’s not my problem, I’m just carrying out orders’55.

When the family go to live inside the Centre, they are told that ‘We can’t take any of our things with us’56. One thing that is excluded from the Centre is pets: ‘They don’t want dogs in the Centre’57. The family dog in the novel functions, as dogs so often do in Saramago’s work, as a marker of place, of rootedness. Its exclusion from the Centre represents an exclusion of identity, of historical, geographical and affective bonds and attachments. Significantly, it is said to come from ‘another world’58. The Centre is a place where, as JG Ballard writes in another novel which deals with a shopping centre, there is ‘No history to be relived, only an intense transactional present’59. Saramago clearly establishes the Centre as a non-place, in contrast to the mulberry tree, the kiln and the cemetery. The notion that modern capitalism leads to the erasure of a sense of place was also elaborated by Guy Debord:

‘Just as the accumulation of commodities mass-produced for the abstract space of the market inevitably shattered all regional and legal barriers…so too it was bound to dissipate the independence and quality of places’60.

The Centre is also briefly contrasted with the city park, which is depicted as a place of integration rather than solitude. The Centre is a place where people are only identified on entering or leaving; an ‘airtight consumer cocoon’61. Whereas the house is covered in the clay of successive generations, the apartment in the Centre is ‘clean, tidy and orderly’, but evacuated of all subjective agency; it has ‘the malign gift of silencing its inhabitants’62. Before the move to the Centre Cipriano feels deeply unsettled by the prospect of living in such a windowless, airless and apparently deathless environment.

The Centre is a site of consumption, a space produced according to the logic of the flow of money and things rather than a place defined by successive generations of people. Given that Cipriano is not a consumer (‘Making purchases is not his concern’63), his exclusion is inevitable. In the novel we witness how non-consumption is increasingly seen as a form of deviance in areas which exist purely for that purpose64; here we can see how existence itself has become predicated on the constant acquisition of commodities:

‘Going into the Centre just to look around is not…viewed with friendly eyes, anyone caught walking round empty-handed will soon become the object of special attention from the security guards…’65

The Centre is not just a site of consuming goods, but also of experiences which are desocialised, ersatz versions of what exists outside the Centre. Inside the Centre, all human experience has been commodified, aestheticised, something which even extends to experience of the weather itself66; in addition the relationship with history has been desocialised and commodified. To borrow from Debord, urban life has turned into spectacle; depth has been transformed into surface, things into images of things. The increasing spectacularisation of the modern city was also a concern for Lefebvre: ‘The city historically constructed is no longer lived and understood practically. It is only an object of cultural consumption for tourists’67. Cipriano realises on entering the Centre to live there that ‘From now on everything would be little more than appearance, illusion, absence of meaning, questions with no answers’68.

Lukacs wrote that the commodity has colonised everyday life, has become ‘the universal category of society as a whole’69. The only value recognised by the Centre is the narrowly defined exchange value of the commodity; use value is defined by the representative of the Centre as a ‘fluctuating, highly subjective element’70. This battle between use and exchange value extends to the question of urban space, which is only of value if it is appropriated and incorporated into the market, ie. into the expanding Centre. The affective space of the mulberry tree and the kiln has value but no price, and similarly the battle over the slums illustrates the constant dialectical tension between the two sets of values. The authorities wish to appropriate the space for incorporation into the market of speculation and consumption, whereas the residents need somewhere to live and work.

The right to have somewhere to live and work is a crucial part of what Lefebvre called the ‘Right to the City’71. Exclusion from the urban centre is represented in Saramago’s novel by the height and extent of the walls of the Centre72. These walls serve to protect its inhabitants and to exclude all others. Their effect is to separate it, to disembed it from the urban fabric. It offers ‘A better standard of living’ and, as a consequence, ‘more and more people want to go and live in the centre’73. The key marketing message of the gated community that is part of the complex is one of security: ‘Live in security, live in the centre’74. This is contrasted with the various kinds of insecurity that exist outside the Centre, the violence of economic insecurity, amounting to what is referred to as a ‘grave crisis’75.

Given that the idea for the novel came to the author on a visit to Brazil76, there are clear echoes of Teresa Caldeira’s book City of Walls. In the city of Sao Paulo, which she writes of, gated condominiums boast in their marketing of offering ‘Perfect security amidst the increasing insecurity of the city’77. Of one particular development she reports that ‘Security is one of the main elements in its advertising and an obsession of all those involved in it’78. And for the ‘residents of the new enclosures’:

‘the inconveniences seem to be more than compensated for by the feeling of security they gain behind the walls, living exclusively among their equals and far from what they consider to be the city’s dangers’79.

For David Harvey, this trend towards the wealthy withdrawing from shared urban networks and barricading themselves behind fortified walls and gates represents a secession from the city, the elites readying their escape from social breakdown in their ‘well-prepared arks’80. Dennis Rodgers writes about Managua, a city in which the whole transport infrastructure has been redeveloped in order to allow the rich to glide swiftly along freeways from the office to the gated compound to the shopping centre to the airport and so to avoid coming into contact with the poor by ignoring the urban network as much as possible81. The rich inhabit a different world; they:

‘…cease to be citizens of their own country and become nomads belonging to, and owing allegiance to, a superterrestrial topography of money; they become patriots of wealth, nationalists of an elusive and golden nowhere’82.

Gated communities very similar to the one portrayed in Saramago’s book are emblematic of this revolt of the elites against shared urban space, which involves what Mike Davis calls a ‘drastic diminution of the intersections between the lives of the rich and the poor’83. As the world outside the Centre undergoes an intensification of insecurity and wider levels of inequality, security is increasingly a highly prized commodity, and therefore a governing and organising principle in cities. Saramago’s novel depicts a world in which, in the words of Boaventura de Sousa Santos ‘Neoliberalism aims to substitute all existing concepts, such as development and democracy, with the concepts of control and security’84.

The Centre does not merely control its borders to keep out unwanted elements. It uses other methods of social control in order to keep different social functions and elements strictly separated and compartmentalised. Cipriano complains of the intrusion into daily life of all ‘the guards, the detectors, the video cameras, and all the other snooping devices’, which are employed, says his son-in-law, to ‘keep watch over nothing in order to ensure it continues to be nothing’85. It is therefore not merely a place of control, but of discipline: ‘People have to be taught not be curious’86. ‘Anything that isn’t normal is, at the very least, suspected of being abnormal’87; here ‘normal’ refers to the consumption of goods and services. The Centre is a space of spectacle, of pseudo activity, a simulacrum where the only meaningful or ‘real’ activity is the flow of money. Anything that does not form part of this process or which might interrupt this flow is therefore excluded and treated as meaningless or dangerous.

The first explicit mention of social exclusion in the novel is in relation to the slum, to ‘the homes of the excluded’88. Saramago’s description of the slum areas illustrates perfectly Mike Davis’ analysis of contemporary urban spaces of exclusion. In a review of ‘Planet of Slums’, Alan Gilbert writes:

‘Peri-urban poverty – a grim human world largely cut off from the subsistence solidarities of the countryside as well as disconnected from the political and cultural life of the traditional city – is the radical new face of poverty’89.

These ‘Cities of the future made out of mud and tin’, ‘Places of terror where the police battle the urban poor’, exemplify a future world in which ‘Only the slum remains as a fully franchised solution to the problem of warehousing this surplus humanity’90. Attention is often drawn to the ways in which these urban inequalities recall or re-establish colonial structures: ‘Investment is always available to beautify the already well-endowed parts of the city. But there is no money to provide even basic services to the poorer areas91‘. The slum dwellers in the novel are forcibly evicted from the ‘no man’s land’ which they inhabit, only to return just as swiftly. In Istanbul these developments are known as gececondu, literally ‘built overnight’, given the speed with which they are cleared and then reappear92. And the strategies the poor adopt in order to survive recall recent events in Brazil, where gangs from poor neighbourhoods hijack trucks in much the same way as is described in the novel93.

In the case of both the Centre and the slum, the homes of the poor and the rich are not permanent. They recall Augé’s remark that ‘Transit points and temporary abodes are proliferating under luxurious or inhuman conditions’94. It is clear from the moment they arrive that the potter’s family will not be able to stay in a place which they cannot make their own; for Cipriano, the apartment soon becomes a prison95 and the family come to realise that ‘we haven’t been happy since we moved’96. Although Marçal has insisted all along that moving to the Centre is ‘not like being sent into exile’97, neither is it a refuge from the insecurity elsewhere: ‘If there’s no future there, there’s certainly none here’, concludes Marta after they have discovered the horrors that lie underneath the Centre98. The trauma of Cipriano’s loss of his home and his work have led the potter to realise that the future must lie elsewhere, although the characters have ‘no (other) destination’ to go to99.


Perhaps today it is simply more difficult than ever to define what constitutes the city. This is particularly true when we look at the city in The Cave. In such a place all perceptible legible urban reality has disappeared: pavements, squares, monuments, meeting places. The city as a place of encounter, exchange, production, participation, difference, spontaneity, the unpredictable, and of immediate and long-term prospects has been usurped.

Nevertheless, if the city is also a place where memories are built upon memories, a place haunted by the past, it can also, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, be haunted by intimations of the future100. It is in this sense significant that the dog, a symbol of identity and rootedness in its ability to mediate between people and cross the threshold between places, is said to come from ‘another world’101. It is also significant that the gift of the water jug, an exchange based on affective bonds rather than market conditions, is described in sublime, religious terms: ‘In anticipation of what is to come, blessings on the encounter that took place on that damp, drizzly afternoon’102. Such moments of solidarity, the forming of human relationships on the basis of affective rather than economic bonds, can be read as more than mere remnants of a decaying world. They may also be said to open up possibilities for how society can be reorganised in the future.

2. All the Names: Senhor José’s adventures in the urban labyrinth

An apt description of Senhor Josés trajectory in All the Names comes from an essay on Kafkas The Castle: He learns to shift the basis of his self-definition away from the elusive Castle to the dynamics of his own subjective relation to the world103. In what follows I will look at the ways in which Sr Josés self-definition shifts from an umbilical dependence upon his place of work to an erotic and dynamic engagement with the city.

The Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths is a place in which time and space are strictly regimented and disciplined, and space is panoptically monitored. The division of tasks is organised according to a strict hierarchy. The staff always arrive in the same order and begin work at exactly the same time104. It is a place governed by indifference towards the individual identity of those who work there: There is to be ‘no word not directly concerned with work105, and for the staff of the Central Registry, There are no personal matters106. The atmosphere is one of perennial paralysis107; the Central Registry is described as having ‘the air of a ruin fixed in time’108. It is governed by the Registrar, described as ‘an extremely authoritarian person, with a harsh, inflexible, secretive nature’109

Sr José is the only character in the novel with a name, but his name is described as nothing special110; it is also, it must be noted, the name of the novel’s author. Although he has a (minimal) name, he is largely anonymous, and as the novel begins the Central Registry is his only point of reference. At the age of fifty he has never married nor lived with a woman111. He lives a life almost entirely devoid of pleasures or interaction with others: in 25 years he has never taken even an hour off work112, he eats a meagre diet, and when he takes a taxi he regards it as a luxury.

He pursues a hobby that he has never shared with any of his colleagues, compiling a scrapbook of cuttings about indiscriminate celebrities, but confides at one point that he finds people hard to know‘, has no-one to talk to and doesnt little about other peoples lives’113. He has resigned himself to knowing of the world only ‘what the hands can grasp without actually leaving the house’114. He has neither phone book nor map of the city where he lives. His sexual relationships are mediated by money: he tells the old woman who he encounters that when he feels the need, ‘I look for a woman and I pay’115. His house is connected by a door to his place of work. It is described as a ‘rough hovel116, a ‘small defenceless chapel clinging to the robust body of the cathedral117.

Sr José is alienated from his surroundings and estranged from the material, emotional and social processes that govern his life. He is, he confesses, bored with the routine of his life118. However, he suddenly has an epiphany that will transform his life119: he begins to follow a loose thread which he comes upon quite by chance, which leads him to try to find out as much as he can about an unknown woman whose file he discovers. In order to investigate her life, he needs to assume false credentials, and in so doing he embarks on a quest that will involve forging an identity for himself.

Here we have an illustration of the ways in which the city offers opportunities for playing with identity, for assuming other identities. Sr José is losing his grip on something, yet to find a hand hold120, and in the process beginning to imagine and make himself other. He is learning that the city is, in the words of Roland Barthes, ‘the space where the other is, and where we ourselves are other; (…) the place where we play the other’121.

He decides to investigate the woman because she is unknown122. Iris Marion Young defines eroticism as an attraction to the other, to the novel, the strange and surprising123. Sr José feels ‘intense excitement’124 at how the old woman who he encounters on his mission will receive him in his new all-powerful guise. He is acquiring a sense of what Young calls the fluid interconnectedness of people, places and possibilities125.

He experiences several moments that engage his mind and body with his surroundings and begin to awaken his slumbering memories and his sense of curiosity about himself and his relation to the world and to others. Away from the Central Registry and embarked upon his quest, he experiences how time expands and collapses, how different temporalities can coexist and, in the remarkable episode in the street in which his past seems to suddenly erupt into his consciousness126, how cities can evoke involuntary memories. The regimented temporality of his place of work begins to melt away once he begins to engage with the city, to explore its labyrinths.

The city for Sr José begins to acquire an aura; he is taking on a presence in the city where he has always lived but from which he has always felt absent and estranged. His mission will involve encroaching on others territory and time (intruding, trespassing), illustrating how social actors make space for themselves spaces of encounter and solidarity. Fran Tonkiss asserts, a propos the work of Michel De Certeau, that urban subjects enact their own maps of the city as if out loud, in the streets of the city127. Sr José is creating his own map, leaving his own trace. The city is becoming a site of memory and vital experience.

If the social relations of the Central Registry can be characterised as vertical and hierarchical, the relations he is seeking out, discovering and forging are horizontal and reciprocal. His imagined sighting of the woman on the bus can be read as an evocation of how the city is intrinsically erotic as a place of encounter, of vitality and connection128.

When he encounters the woman who he takes to be the object of his quest, he is convinced it must be her. It is a rare moment of clarity and connection in a life that has been characterised by dullness and isolation. Recognising a stranger is a crucial step in beginning to recognise himself and assume his own subjective identity. He wishes he had a map of the city129 and begins to develop his own based on the staging posts of his journey, the beginnings of a design made up, like that of all lives, of broken lines, crossings, [and] intersections130. In so doing he begins to inhabit the city, to engage with his surroundings, to make what Lefebvre calls, Full usage of moments and places131.

For De Certeau, it is pedestrian utterances such as these which speak the city132. Particularly when Sr José begins to record his adventures in written form, he is after a fashion inscribing himself into the city, giving legitimate expression to his self as a subject of discourse. He is writing a romance, seeing himself from the outside, as part of a romance.

He acknowledges that ‘[It is] about time I did something absurd in my life133. It is as if an alarm clock has gone off in his life and woken him out of the sleepwalk that has constituted his life thus far. He is described as trembling with excitement and fear134; Sr José, we are told, did not seem like Sr José; he is said to be behaving with a strange boldness135. This appears to be infectious: in taking a personal interest in the health of his employee, the Registrar is breaking all the rules, acting in a way which is subversive of the hierarchical chain136.

Once he has embarked upon his quest, his identity quickly comes to depend on the role he is playing. He begins to fear the loss of the share in other peoples lives, bonds he had begun to form, credit he had gained137.

He encounters very few people on his forays outside of the confines of the Registry. This is a city that seems strangely deserted138; and is also a place of fear and suspicion: when he speaks to the young woman who he initially mistakes for the object of his quest, he is told to go away quickly in case anyone hears them talking139. The city is also largely devoid of squares and meeting places; we encounter very little in the way of street life.

His investigation, as he calls it, involves, in addition to forgery, impersonation and subterfuge, breaking into the school to try and retrieve the unknown womans school records. He becomes a criminal. For Walter Benjamin, the city is a crime scene, consisting of fragments of the past: in interacting with each other and with our environment, we leave traces of ourselves behind140. To live in the city it is necessary to be both a detective and a criminal, to follow up clues and erase our traces in order to operate with some degree of anonymity within the interstices of power. Sr José recognises the dangers of his investigation, and the ways in which it implicates him; he is constantly anxious not to be seen or noticed141, and begins to fear that He was leaving too many trails about the city, talking with too many people142. While Sr José does not exactly typify the figure of the flâneur, his quest is not entirely removed from that of Baudelaire’s urban voyeur. Trails, traces and threads are important motifs in the novel. The theme of threads in particular serves to exemplify the ways in which José is engaged in weaving places together, and in so doing creating the city.

In assuming nocturnal command of the Registry in order to pursue his investigation, Sr José exemplifies De Certeaus notion of social actors poaching bits of space and time143. He has always lived (literally) in the shadow of the Registry, and now his quest provides him with the courage to appropriate that space, to put it to a different use. In the city, each space has many different meanings, many different memories associated with it. It is, like in a dream, overdetermined: by memory, by meaning, by social (and spatial) relations.

Abandoning his attempt to find time for his quest within the strict regime of the Central Registry, he decides not to go to work144. His truancy, a refusal to be ‘tied down to the servitude of work’145 is an exemplification of De Certeau’s injunction to make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers146.

The novel is at the same time, then, a romance, a detective story and an essay on what Georg Simmel called the mental dimension of city life147. Perhaps after a fashion it is both a murder and a ghost story: Sr José unconsciously recreates the connection between the old woman and the unknown woman. In doing so, he brings to life the ghost of their past relationship. It is of course unclear if there is a causal connection between this and the unknown womans suicide, but it is entirely possible. For Steven Pile, haunting lies at the heart and soul of modernity. Sr José is placing the fragments of the city into a history that could have been, re-establishing their ties to other times, other possible presents, other futures148. The city is haunted by other possible futures and unconscious echoes of the past.

If the staff of the Central Registry fear the inner depth of the archive, it is because they are scared that it too may be haunted. The aim of the archive is to organise rationally and systematically the files of the living and the dead of the city. It has, however, over the years become chaotic, mountains of bundles, columns of files, thickets of ancient remains149. It resembles a city, with a complex network of passages and paths, where you are constantly confronted by obstacles and cul-de-sacs150. It is a labyrinth where unexpected avalanches of files can occur, and the only way to negotiate ones way around the more obscure parts of the archives is to use a thread to avoid getting lost.

The city itself is also a labyrinth of the unexpected, where all kinds of lost dreams, hopes and artefacts reside151. The labyrinth is a common motif in Saramago’s work. His English translator Margaret Jull Costa writes, ‘Saramago is very keen on labyrinths, and there is a labyrinthine quality to his novels’152. The metaphor is particularly important in his treatment of cities: in The year of the death of Ricardo Reis, the central character’s taxi enters the city ‘as if entering a labyrinth’153; we also witness the city of the blind as a ‘demented labyrinth’154. In venturing into the archive of the living, José inevitably becomes tied to others in the complex web of the urban fabric: in the case of the old woman, they are bound to each other by a thread of tears155.

If the Registry archive can be read as a city, the decision of the Registrar to reunite the files of the living and the dead can be read as a gesture aimed at creating a space where the past can speak to the living, disturbing the traditional image of the present as life and the past as death. Another space that is explicitly compared to a city is the cemetery, which is described as an immense necropolis156. In a theme we have already explored in relation to The Cave and will return to in the chapter on Blindness, the cemetery is a place of meaning and burial an act of meaning in the midst of a landscape which appears sterile and devoid of meaning. The archive of the Cemetery is also compared at length with the Central Registry (like the façade, the interior of the building is a perfect copy of the Central Registry157). Like the Registry, the Cemetery itself keeps outgrowing its boundaries, and also like the Registry the walls had to be knocked down and rebuilt in order to accommodate the dead. Someone had in the past had the idea of knocking down the cemetery walls in order to ‘rekindle the sentimental relationship between those on the inside and those on the outside158, given that walls have the perverse effect of aiding forgetfulness159. The effect of this policy has been to extend the cemetery throughout the surrounding city. The city of the dead has grown together with the city of the living, such that it ‘has grown to the point where it is almost cheek by jowl with the places that the living had intended for their exclusive use’.

The cemetery is a catalogue of every possible way of seeing, being, and living160. On Sr Josés trajectory he passes through epochs, eras, republics, [and] wars161. They are, to borrow from Italo Calvino, the remnants of all the dead cities that have succeeded one another on the site where the current city now stands162.

Sr Josés mission is to recover the unknown woman from an obscurity deeper than that of the grave. In this his quest echoes Walter Benjamins notion, recorded in his work One Way Street, in which he talks of breaking fragments out of their isolation163. This notion of literature as a means of investigating and recovering traces of urban phenomena from spatial and temporal obscurity also finds an echo in a later and thematically very similar Saramago novel, The Double, which deals with a man who has the uncanny experience of finding out that he has an identical double. In that novel the following passage appears:

‘There have been instances in far-distant times of a perfect physical resemblance between two people…The most remarkable case we know was that of a particular town, long since disappeared, in which in the same street and in the same house, but not in the same family, and separated by an interval of two hundred and fifty years, two identical women were born. This marvellous event was not recorded in any chronicle, nor was it preserved in the oral tradition, which is perfectly understandable, really, given that when the first was born, no- one knew there would be a second, and when the second came into the world, all memory had been lost of the first…The fact that history does not record a fact doesnt mean that that fact did not exist.164


In following the threads that leads him to the unknown woman, Sr José is engaged in a quest whose effect is, in the words of Alain Badiou in an essay on the Paris Commune, to crack the imaginary unity of the world, so that new forms of acting, speaking, feeling and being might become possible165; Sr José witnesses the emergence of such possibilities, engages with the fluid interconnectedness of people, places and possibilities in the urban environment, appropriating lived moments and spaces and inhabiting the city as an engaged urban subject. He begins to wonder how he will live in the future; having spent his whole life between four walls; he wonders about the names of flowers166; wanders the city without a map or a guide167. When he visits the house of the unknown woman, he even considers the possibility of staying the night:

‘…if, during the night, some pleasant dream excites your old body, as you know, the remedy is to hand, but you’ll have to be careful not to dirty the sheets.168

In the course of his search for the unknown woman Sr José has experienced an erotic awakening to the possibilities his active engagement with others and with the world offers; he begins to live in accordance with Henri Lefebvres dictum: Everyday life is so precious because it is so fragile…we must live it to the full, inhabit it as fully sensual beings169. The novel illustrates his trajectory between his alienated anonymous subjectivity within the (apparently) rational and ordered world of the Central Registry, and the person that he becomes in the course of his erotic adventure inside the chaotic labyrinths of the city.

  1. Blindness: The city was still there

In Blindness170 we witness the near-total collapse of civilised life in an unnamed city. Not only does it have no name; it is a bare city from which all historical and geographical reference points and markers of identity have been excised. It might be said to evoke Kublai Kahn’s ‘model city from which all possible cities can be deduced: a city which contains everything, corresponding to the norm’171. When the novel was filmed by Fernando Meirelles in 2008172, the action was filmed in a combination of Sao Paulo, Toronto and Montevideo, illustrating the novel’s depiction of the city as an Augean non-place. None of the characters has a name; they are known only by their role or some distinguishing characteristic.

The events portrayed in both Blindness and Seeing lead to the imposition of a state of emergency; a government responds to a chaotic event by protecting and securing people’s freedoms by limiting them. The questions of power and its abuse, and of exclusion from the city will be explored further in the chapter on Seeing. In this section it is the question of the city as a site of meaning in the novel whihc concerns us: the ways in which meaningful interaction with the urban environment and other people gradually disappears from the city, then unexpectedly returns, and why.

In order to arrive at these moments of meaningful interaction with each other and with the city the victims of the blind plague in Blindness have to first descend to the underworld and pass through several stages of estrangement and abasement. Beginning from the moment in which they are confined together in the abandoned mental asylum they are depicted as reverting to a pre-civilised state. When they leave the confines of the destroyed asylum and are forced to survive in a hostile and broken-down environment, one of them comments, ‘In all certainty this is how the world began’173. The trajectory that the characters follow in the novel is one which leads to ever-increasing terror and brutality, in an environment defined as one of ‘total degradation’174. Life for the blind is described as ‘a real torment’175; the city has become a savage jungle; the epidemic of blindness having served to dehumanise the remaining inhabitants of the city. All normal social relations and forms of social reproduction have become impossible; the threads that tie them to civilisation appear to have snapped.

For the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it is the face to face encounter with the other which gives birth to ethics and hence to the development of moral and social codes of behaviour176. In the land of the blind, the recognition of the other which generates this ethical impulse is suddenly no longer present. Cities in particular concentrate large numbers of people and oblige them to interact in particular ways. The often conflicting flows of city life are coordinated by means of certain regimented systems of rules, and codes. For Georg Simmel and Louis Wirth, the system of traffic lights and the existence of clocks are both key ways in which urban space and time are organised177. The collapse of these systems is apparent from the very first page, when the first victim of the plague can no longer see the traffic lights, and the text details the catastrophic effects that an accumulation of such delays can have on the life of the city:

‘…some people maintain that this delay, while apparently so insignificant, has only to be multiplied by the thousands of traffic lights that exist in the city and by the successive changes of their three colours to produce one of the most serious causes of traffic jams or bottlenecks, to use the more current term.178

The coming crisis is clearly signalled as a crisis of the city, a specifically urban breakdown. Later in the novel the watches of the internees cease to function; time itself has lost its meaning, and is described as ‘coming to an end’179.

The loss of these reference points implies a collapse of meaning for the victims of the plague; and, given that the epidemic of blindness comes to infect all but one person in the city, the city itself. The spatial and temporal grids that hold urban life in place dissolve into the milky white blindness, and all reference points begin to evaporate into a ‘strange dimension’180. The transport system in the city is reported to have ground and crashed to a halt181 and the portable radio that brings them news from outside eventually falls silent182. Already from the beginning devoid of names, the blind internees have to surrender the last of their personal possessions in order to pay for food183. They are confined together with strangers they cannot begin to identify or to recognise, away from their homes, their work and all the things that make their lives meaningful, unable to look after or to orientate themselves. In addition they have been betrayed and abandoned by the authorities, becoming abject beings that fit Agamben’s definition of ‘homo sacer’: bare life, those from whom all civil and legal protections have been removed184. In the process of this stripping away of identities and identifications, they have become more like animals. The doctor’s wife warns of this danger early on in their incarceration (‘We are becoming animals’185). The brutal gang who come to dominate the asylum are responding to the most basic needs of survival: sex and food. The inmates are increasingly unable to maintain any measure of human dignity or to exercise their reason.

Their life is is governed by the rules imposed by means of the announcement made several times a day, which makes clear to them that they can expect no help from outside: ‘Leaving the building will result in instant death…The firemen will not intervene [in case of fire]’186. The conditions under which they are kept exemplify Agamben’s notion of the camp as that biopolitical sphere where ‘power confronts nothing but bare life, with no mediation’187. They soon become aware that they are ‘probably more isolated than anyone has ever been’188. Their status as humans is recognised but all civil, legal and political rights have been taken away; they have become utterly abject beings, bare life rather than citizens.

When they escape from confinement they discover that the state of exception has become generalised. The city has become a ‘demented labyrinth’ of the blind189. We are told that ‘what there was was not a city’190. In many important senses, the city as the site of ‘civitas’ or civilisation has indeed disappeared, as David Frier remarks:

‘What has been lacking [throughout the novel] has been the “civitas”, the Latin word from which the modern Portuguese terms “cidade” and “city” derive, but which primarily meant “society” rather than “city” and which has allowed us to develop the notion of “civilisation”, of being able to live with one another in peace and mutual respect’191.

In the absence of such a notion, the most fundamental structures of urban life have collapsed: there is no longer a difference ‘between inside and outside, between here and there, the many and the few’192; the concept of home has lost its meaning (the blind ‘Only manage to find their way home by miracle, (with) no one to help them’193); all the blind people are adrift in what was formerly a city, ‘like ants on a trail’194, unable to find their way back to familiar places. The city has become a collection of buildings and individuals, with no connection between the different elements. It has become impossible to form or to maintain relationships with others. Time, place, identity, work, home, relationships have all lost their meaning, and the only meaningful activity is scavenging for food and trying to find shelter from the elements. Also with no ‘eyes on the street’, in the famous phrase of Jane Jacobs195, the city has become a predatory place of danger. Any contact with others is to be avoided; the other has become the enemy in the fight for sheer survival.

The new reality of brutal individual competition and mistrust contrasts sharply with the values espoused right at the beginning of the novel. When the character who becomes known as the car thief offers to help the first blind man by taking him home, he expresses the simple belief in reciprocity: ‘Today it’s your turn, tomorrow it will be mine’196. It is this Enlightenment principle, the essence of Kant’s categorical imperative, that the claims of the self are inseparable from the recognition of the other, that is at the core of Saramago’s ethical project in the novel, and it is precisely this value that becomes impossible to sustain in the land of the blind.

When the inmates escape from the asylum and find that the city is collapsing, the doctor’s wife responds to a question about where she is from with the words ‘I’m not from here’197. The city is no longer a place of identity and belonging. Nevertheless the closing line of the novel reads ‘The city was still there’198. In some sense the city has evidently survived or been restored. But in what sense?

The doctor’s wife comments that the blind feel with the feelings of others199. In the world of the novel all the others are also blind, and so life for the overwhelming majority of the population of the blind city has lost all meaning beyond the need to survive. The city has emptied out of meaning; everyday life in any recognisable sense has broken down and love, solidarity and reason are rapidly becoming impossible to sustain. Identity, a sense of place, time, relationships with others, work and home have ceased to have any meaning. A place evacuated of meaning can be defined as a non-place, and, just as Marc Auge makes the point that non-places are never complete200, with some vestiges of identity and solidarity remaining, in Blindness the doctor’s wife is able to sustain her small group and eventually by extension the city. She achieves this through acts and gestures of solidarity and sacrifice, and by continuing to perform rituals which preserve meaning.

She is able to come to a civilised agreement with the occupant of the apartment belonging to the first blind man. When the group arrive at her clean apartment she encourages them to enter despite being covered in filth, indicating that she is prepared to share and to sacrifice her own space rather than rejecting and excluding the other as abject. David Frier writes:

‘The real mark of civilisation on the part of the doctor’s wife is surely that she is willing to accept this contamination of her own space for the sake of the others’201.

Several of these episodes have the quality of sublime or utopian moments, most notably when the three women wash one another on the balcony of the doctor’s wife’s apartment, a scene described in quasi-religious terms as ‘paradise’ and ‘the most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city’202. When she proffers water to her guests it is as if she is performing a rite, and the motif of her apartment as being a kind of paradise is immediately made explicit: it is a ‘kind of paradise that these seven pilgrims have reached’203.

One important symbol of this in the novel is that of burial. The doctor’s wife insists on the burial of the dead in the asylum204 and of the old woman whose body they find in the street205. In this sense she evokes Sophocles’ Antigone, who defies the city’s authorities with the demand that she be allowed to bury her brother. By insisting on burial the doctor’s wife is asserting the city as a site of meaning.


For Hegel, Antigone is the ‘eternal irony of the community’. Judith Butler argues that although Antigone is outside the terms of the city, she is nevertheless ‘an outside without which the polis (city) could not be’206. This also serves as an apt description of the role of the doctor’s wife in Blindness. The entire city is blind, but it is her eyesight which allows the community, and thereby the city, to survive. The city is still there insofar as the vision and ethical lucidity of the doctor’s wife has preserved or restored some measure of community and therefore civilisation to the city. Saramago’s ethical project in the novel is to demonstrate that it is the exercise of ethical values of mutual recognition, respect and solidarity that is the core of civic life. In the age of biopolitical power and of dehumanising forces which work towards the destruction of solidarity, identity and place, these values must be actively affirmed in a battle for the city as a place of meaning.

It is also significant that the city itself is not condemned as merely the site of dehumanizing forces. Whatever the cause of the mysterious plague of white blindness may be, it is not simply urban anomie that is responsible. When the question of whether the characters should abandon the city for the countryside is raised, it is explicitly rejected. In this sense a revealing contrast opens up with the final pages of The Cave, which supports my contention that in that novel the city is no longer ‘still there’; in that novel the characters do indeed abandon the city. To live outside the city in Blindness, by contrast, would be to scavenge ‘like animals’. There is a particular significance in the fact that the blind humans are repeatedly referred to as behaving ‘like animals’207, which lies in the fact that animals act purely out of selfish instinct. Human ‘nature’ may be animal-like, but human beings are animals who some time ago embarked on a path of historical development, and using their capacity for reason, historical memory, language, reciprocal solidarity and cooperation they have built cities: sites of civilisation. A world of the blind would be a world without cities. It is to the possibility of the city as a site of community, solidarity and belonging, as a lived place rather than a non-place, to which we now turn in the discussion of Seeing.

  1. Seeing: The city takes the matter into its own hands

What is the cause of the strange and sudden outbreak of blank voting in the unnamed city in Seeing208? The explanation of the Government is clear: the normal functioning of the democratic system has been subverted, owing to a nefarious and possibly foreign-inspired plot which must be uncovered and quashed if ‘democratic normality’209 is to resume. The effects of this purported conspiracy are described as an ‘infection’210, a ‘modern day black death’211 and a ‘tumour’212, which has been introduced into the democratic system by ‘vandals, barbarians, savages’213 and ‘wretched rebels’214. The entire city has been contaminated by this moral pestilence, and the best solution, the authorities conclude, is to lay siege to the city and force it to see the errors of its ways.

The Prime Minister feels nostalgia ‘for the happy times when votes did as they were told’215: the voters are seen as puppets that can be easily manipulated. Their ‘normal’216 role is simply to periodically cast a vote in order to legitimise the continued existence of the political system. It is their refusal to play this role and by so doing create a legitimation crisis that throws their purported political representatives into turmoil. The high-blown and paternalistic rhetoric of the political parties appears to have no impact on the level of disengagement of the electors from the political system. The political leaders talk of civic duty, the ‘vital importance’217 of the elections, and the urgency of a return to ‘normal’ political realities. They are portrayed as motivated purely by their own political survival. They contest among themselves the meaning of the results, with the left-wing party claiming it is a mislaid protest vote for their cause218. But all three parties agree that they are facing a crisis and that normality must be restored at any cost.

The citizens react with an ominous silence to the Government’s attempts to identify its cause of the rebellion and its perpetrators. They respond blankly or brusquely to inquiries about how they voted219. This refusal to engage with the system in its search for a way to address the crisis is understood by the increasingly desperate authorities to be more of a threat to the legitimacy of their power than electoral opposition could ever be. The citizens are violating the implicit rule that interprets any measure of participation as an act of affirmation of legitimacy. The ‘movement’220 has no representatives or spokespeople with whom the Government can come to terms; indeed it is clear that in addition to having no figurehead, the ‘movement’ does not exist. It is made up of ‘thousands of people who do not know one another’221 who, with no prior agreement, decided to cast a blank vote and who now respond to attempts to persuade them to engage in a dialogue with the same formula: ‘We don’t owe anyone an explanation’222.

This new state of affairs is described as ‘mysterious’223, ‘new and unknown’224, and ‘threatening’225. Eventually it transpires that the reason they cast blank votes was because they were ‘disillusioned’ and ‘could find no other way of making it clear just how disillusioned they were’:

‘They could have staged a revolution, but then many people would undoubtedly have died, something they would never have wanted, (…) all their lives they had patiently placed their votes in the ballot box, and the results were there for all to see, This isn’t democracy, Sir, far from it’226.

Since this new state of affairs has, in the words of a newspaper editorial, ‘complicated public life to an unprecedented degree, corralling it into a dark alleyway from which not even the brightest spark (is) able to see a way out’227, the Government turns to desperate measures in deciding to abandon the ‘rebel city’228 to its own devices. As the Prime Minister explains:

‘…our aim is to isolate the population and then leave them to simmer, sooner or later there are bound to be fights, conflicts of interests, life will become increasingly difficult, the streets will fill up with rubbish…there are bound to be serious problems with the distribution and supply of foodstuffs, problems which, if necessary, we will take care to create…’229

The President appears on television to notify the country of the Government’s decision to withdraw their ministries and the forces of law and order. He warns the city ‘The streets will be yours, they belong to you, use them as you wish’230.

The siege that they plan to impose on the city will ‘inevitably seriously hamper the smooth functioning of an urban area of such importance’, and the Government expects that within a short period of time lawlessness and social breakdown will ensue and the disobedient population, trapped in its ‘unhappy prison’, will learn its lesson and overcome its ‘wicked obstinacy’231. However, as soon as they learn that the authorities are gone, the people of the city take to the streets:

‘The streets, which, up until then, had been almost deserted…filled up with people within a matter of minutes…they resembled two rivers, one flowing up and one flowing down, and they waved to each other from river to river, as if the city were celebrating, as if it were a local holiday.’232

No-one goes to work233, and despite the hysterical predictions of the Government and the press, ‘there were no thieves or rapists or murderers’: It seems that ‘the police were not, after all, essential for the city’s security’234, and the traffic flows smoothly. The predicted collapse into chaos does not occur.

One of the key moments of the novel takes place soon after the Government and the police have withdrawn from the city. After the announcement of a Government-orchestrated strike by the refuse collectors, a Government-friendly newspaper publishes an editorial predicting that the rebellion will end in a bloodbath, a message which is broadcast and discussed on TV and radio. As if in response:

‘…at midday exactly, while all this was going on, from every house in the city there emerged women armed with brooms, buckets and dustpans, and, without a word, they started sweeping their own patch of pavement and street…they were not just looking after their own interests, but the interests of the community as well’235

It is as if the people of the city have adopted the President’s ironic injunction to make the streets their own and turned it around in order to claim the streets as their own common property in an act of autogestion. With the authorities gone, the city begins to look after itself. Its citizens have shown themselves to be ‘determined to change their lives, their tastes and their style’236. Not only have they ceased to play their part in the charade of representative democracy, but their interest in reading newspapers has also greatly declined237; the ideological hold that power has had over them is losing its grip. They are gaining autonomy in various areas of their lives, and rather than relying on the abstract entity of the state to take care of the common areas of the city, the people have begun to take matters into their own hands. In Lefebvrian terms, what was the abstract space of state jurisdiction has been appropriated and transformed into lived space238. The Government has made a ‘grave error leaving the city unsupervised’239.

Lefebvre regarded the street as the place where spontaneity can express itself, ‘an arena of the city not completely occupied by institutions’240. It is not so much public as common. As a result of the political crisis and the Government’s departure from the city, social space begins to assume new meaning. In the protests that take place the streets are explicitly reclaimed by the citizens. The second demonstration takes place after Government agents have bombed the metro station in a failed attempt to provoke recrimination and division241. A sea of people floods the street in a silent demonstration that makes its way to the parliament building in a clear example of what David Harvey calls ‘targetting power in place’242. The street has become a space of meaningful interaction, and the attempts at dividing the besieged city against itself do not succeed, as the city is experiencing the ‘birth and growth of an atmosphere of social harmony, (of) unequivocal solidarity’243. Examples of solidarity abound, such as when, to the shock and disappointment of the watching media, those who have returned to the city after their failed attempt to escape are not greeted with hatred and violent recrimination.

Clearly something unprecedented is happening; according to the Minister of Justice, it is as if an epidemic of clear-sightedness has succeeded the epidemic of blindness that struck the city four years before, and over which has lain a code of silence244. Whatever this new plague may be a symptom of, it raises questions of urban governance. By whom and for whom is the city governed? It seems that suddenly the governing class are no longer seen as the natural leaders, and that a transition is underway to what the Prime Minister calls ‘something entirely new and unknown, so different we could probably have no place in it’245. The authorities see it as crucial to re-establish their rule and to avert what they see as the horror of the subject classes starting to take care of themselves.

There are a number of echoes in the novel of recent and not so recent events in cities in the real world. In his recent book ‘Violence’ Slavoj Žižek makes reference to Saramago’s novel in the context of a discussion of the riots in the banlieues of Paris in 2006, arguing that rather than a revolution, the act of political defiance is one of a purely negative character, a refusal to continue to cooperate with a process that they have come to regard as a charade. It is a movement with no leaders and no demands and as such it can neither be defeated nor incorporated into the system itself. It is a phatic act of rebellion which expresses no deeper meaning than that of mere refusal, ‘reject[ing] the very frame of decision’246.

Nevertheless this argument fails to acknowledge that the act of returning a blank vote is not a passive act of pure negation, but a performative one: a subversive act of returning a ballot while withholding a vote. What the Government is faced with closely resembles the legitimacy crisis which Jurgen Habermas argues that government institutions in modern capitalist societies face247. Significantly it was also published shortly after the farce of the election count in 2000 in what is purported to be the world’s largest democracy.

One of the clearest historical echoes in the novel is of the Paris Commune of 1871, an event that Lefebvre describes as ‘a spontaneous reaction against the programming and control of [the people’s] lives’248. David Harvey records that:

‘When the rural army of reaction was assembled on the outskirts of Paris in 1871 poised to engage in the savage slaughter of some 30,000 communards, they were first persuaded that their mission was to reclaim the city from the forces of Satan.249

The siege of the city in Seeing is a similar struggle over the control and meaning of urban space between the state and what is seen by the authorities as a demonic rabble that has taken over the city. Almost one hundred years after the Paris Commune, the events of May 1968 would be inspired by ideas of reclaiming and appropriating space and time in the city, creating lived space and lived moments, liberating time and space from the confinements of the bourgeois order. Lefebvre wrote of both events that:

‘In 1871 the entire people took to the streets; the bourgeoisie had already left the capital or was preparing to do so…in March 1871 as in May 1968, the people come from the periphery, assembled and headed toward the urban centres in order to reconquer them’250.

Another echo which can be interpreted as significant given Saramago’s controversial support for the Palestinian cause251, is of the siege of Gaza, which partly results from the refusal of the Western powers and Israel to recognise the results of the election of 2005 in which Hamas was elected to govern252. The Israelis continue to besiege and bombard Gaza in the attempt to persuade its inhabitants to vote more appropriately and obediently in the future. The Government’s contempt for the voters in Seeing also recalls Henry Kissinger’s alleged remark in relation to the election of a socialist Government in Chile in 1973: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”253

Are the citizens who, in the absence of the state authorities, take command of the city in the novel rejecting the notion of democracy per se? It is useful here to consider a rhetorical question posed by Pierre Bourdieu in relation to neoliberalism, urban life and democratic accountability:

‘It can be shown, for example, that the problems seen in the suburban estates of the cities stem from a neoliberal housing policy, implemented in the 1970s…This social separation was brought about by a political measure. [But] who would link a riot in a suburb of Lyon to a political decision of 1970?’254

Both Bourdieu and Saramago are fiercely critical of the neoliberal model of democracy, with its ideological glossing over of social problems caused by political decisions based on narrowly-defined economic criteria. Bourdieu writes that ‘all the critical forces in society need to insist on the inclusion of the social costs of economic decisions in economic calculations’255. The concern in the novel is for a more meaningful form of democratic participation in the life of the community, the city and in society. The anodyne model of democracy which is explicitly rejected in the novel is a managerial one, which is concerned primarily with the reproduction of political power, and not with specific problems and possibilities in the life of a city. A politician from the the right-wing party is described as having been ‘appointed to administer’ the city256; the dominant attitude of the politicians in the novel is that of cynicism and self-interest. The democratic system is shown to be merely a machine to produce the illusion of democracy.

Alain Badiou makes the point that capitalism is worldless257, in the sense that it is divorced from any specific social field of meaning and can operate with any set of values, adapting easily to purported ‘Asian values’ (supposedly collectivist and authoritarian) rather than being entrenched in the liberal, ‘democratic’ and individualist traditions of the West. The city as we first encounter it in Seeing, as in the other three novels under discussion, appears to have no distinguishing features: no past, no place, no landmarks, and no names. It is the bland landscape of liberal-democratic capitalism, with all distinguishing historical and geographical features and social particularities eliminated, not anchored in any specific time or landscape. It might therefore be thought of as a Fukuyamaian post-historical city258. Apart from the designation of three political parties, from the right, the centre and the left, ideology plays very little role, and politics is merely a matter of administration.

The pre-rebellion city in ‘Seeing’ can thus be categorized as another non-place; although the politicians insist that the municipal elections are vital for the future of the city, their rhetoric rings false, as the city appears to have no past, and how can a city with no past have a future? The ‘gentle rebellion’259 occasioned by the blank votes, however, awakens the city to its past, to its repressed traumas, but also to new possible futures.

These possibilities can be glimpsed in those moments in the novel where the city itself appears to become the agent of transformation. Previously the citizens have not had ‘the healthy habit of demanding the proper enforcement of their rights’260, but after they rebel and the Government deserts the city, the city itself becomes subjectivised in a process which Badiou might well classify as an ‘event’261: a collective political phenomenon which seemingly emerges out of nothing, and which then opens the way to new possibilities. The city is said to ‘[take] the matter into its own hands’262. Useful here is Lefebvre’s concept of ‘counter-spaces’: spaces which ‘resist the dominant organisation of space around the requirements of political order’, and which can also be categorised in Foucaultian terms as ‘heterotopias’263. The action of the citizens in reclaiming the streets creates spaces from which formal power is excluded. Fran Tonkiss writes:

‘Taking to the streets or the square is both a tactical reworking of space – the embassy or the government building is no longer simply a site of official power, but also a site of protest or resistance – and an enactment in time’264.

A heterotopia is a kind of ‘effectively enacted utopia’, and those moments in the novel in which the possibility of a genuinely humanizing urban experience is glimpsed can be characterised as utopian in the sense that they offer what Marx described as ‘fantastic pictures of future society’; a vision of what humans can collectively achieve once their ‘slumbering powers’ have been awakened265. For David Harvey:

‘The figures of “the city” and of “Utopia” have long been intertwined, visions of utopia assuming an urban form. In remaking the city we remake ourselves, or as the situationist slogan says, ‘changer la ville, changer la vie’266.

In those moments in which the citizens express solidarity with their fellow inhabitants and begin to appropriate and produce their own space, the city becomes a place of meaning: in an echo of the closing pages of Blindness, it also becomes a place of ritual. The moment in which the superintendent drinks from the fountain in the park is described in quasi-religious terms267.

It is significantly the only one of the four novels in which the city has a clearly defined centre. As we explored in the chapter on The Cave, within Lefebvre’s notion of the ‘right to the city’, the right to centrality, of access to and participation in the life of the city is key. Writing on the Paris Commune, Lefebvre argues that the workers return to the centre, conquer the city. This renovated centrality is a crucial element in the transformation of the city in Seeing. The people of the city produce their own space, creating a kind of experimental utopia of which Lefebvre would surely approve:

‘[Lefebvre] envisaged a ludic city, such that work would be organised around residence, and in which everyday life would be transformed, and people would be in charge of their lives.268


The city in Seeing is effectively emancipated through the actions of its citizens. This may suggest an anarchist reading of the events in the novel, in the sense that the state withdraws and the city functions without a government as an autonomous space. In this the novel echoes the ideas of Hardt and Negri: the multitude, made up of diverse social forces, establishes the city as a commons founded on a more meaningful type of participative democracy, with new forms of ‘cooperation, communication, forms of life, and social relationships’269.

Saramago is clearly no anarchist, however; I will avoid here entering into an extended discussion of the question of the relationship between democracy and the state in this novel. It is of course not insignificant that the rebellion ultimately ends in failure. The woman whom the authorities have scapegoated as the protagonist of the rebellion is the doctor’s wife from Blindness whom I have argued in the chapter on that novel is a kind of Antigone figure. At the end of Seeing she is assassinated and the city immediately returns to that previous state of blindness; the symptom of the previous novel returns (at that moment it also transpires that she has indeed been in some mysterious way responsible for the events of the novel)270. The forces of authority and reaction may have withdrawn but they have not gone away, and like in 1871 and 1968, the emancipation of the city has proven to be short lived.

There are clear limits to the politics of local self-determination as a strategy for confronting and overthrowing the state. In addition to seeing her as Antigone, we might imagine the doctor’s wife as the Castro, the Chavez or the subcommandante Marcos of the novel in that without her as a catalyst, the rebellion immediately loses its force and potential. Nevertheless the eruption of the political earthquake in the novel has served to shake up the question of how the city might be made into a democratic space and what such a space might look like.


The city is the place where we are thrown together most intensely and the place which gives our civilisation meaning and substance. It is also, as the Greek word for city (polis) suggests, a contested place, the place where our political struggles are lived most intensely. Saramago’s four novels depict the city both as a place of hell and as a place of hope. There is hope in the city as a shared and lived space: a place of vital experience and lived moments, a place with the possibility of engagement and collective agency, where the city can be imagined and constructed according to our heart’s desires: a place of creative and collective purpose. Seeing explores this aspect of city life. The city is also a vibrant place of enchanting encounters, a dynamic web or labyrinth in which individuals can form connections with others, can inhabit their memories and explore the potential of their subjective agency, as Sr José begins to do in All the Names. In both senses the city is a place of becoming, a shell which secretes an organic identity, but a shell that we can also collectively shape. The city is the place where we are most obviously social beings, with all the potential that this implies.

Social and economic forces are also at play which challenge and threaten the city as a place of vital encounter and dynamic potential. The city is also the site where power is monopolised, a place of exclusion, a place where wealth is accumulated according to a logic which humans can apprehend but cannot control. Capitalism in its neoliberal form accelerates this process, which disrupts everyday life and uproots any sense of belonging, eroding identity and turning places into non-places, as we witness in The Cave. Blindness shows clearly that without a sense of shared space and experience, without the reciprocal recognition of the other as the core of our ethical being, the city as civitas, the seat, the means and the ends of civilisation, can simply cease to exist. Vigilance is the price of civilisation.

These two opposing poles of the city as a site of both humanising annd dehumanising forces are present throughout the four novels. There is much that echoes Lefebvre’s appeal for a transformed and renewed right to urban life, to spaces and moments divorced from the alienating forces of exchange value: a new urban praxis ‘in the general interests of civilisation’271. How this may be realised is not addressed in the novels. The novels may offer a glimpse of that ‘elusive and golden nowhere’ but they do not offer a detailed picture or offer any prescription for how to arrive there.

Each of the four novels depicts a different city, every one reduced to its bare essential elements. But cities are more than collections of buildings; they are places inhabited by large numbers of people, and whereever there are people there is potential for collective action to transform the way they choose to live. According to the assessment I have presented here, Saramago’s depiction of the urban experience exemplifies perfectly the exhortation which which Calvino’s Invisible Cities ends:

‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’272


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132 Cited in Crang, M., and Thrift, N., (2000) Thinking Space, Routledge piii

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150 Saramago, J., (2000), p143

151 Merrifield, A., (2002) Metromarxism: A Marxist Tale of the City, Routledge, p12

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154Saramago, J., (2005) p228

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179Saramago, J., (2005) p281

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209Saramago, J., (2006) p19

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211Saramago, J., (2006) p51

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217Saramago, J., (2006) p2

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219Saramago, J., (2006) pp39-43

220Saramago, J., (2006) p32

221Saramago, J., (2006) p25

222Saramago, J., (2006) p14

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231Saramago, J., (2006) p84

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239Saramago, J., (2006) p303

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241Saramago, J., (2006) p129

242Cited in Tonkiss, F., (2006) Space, Social Theory and the City, Polity Press, p66

243Saramago, J., (2006) p155

244Saramago, J., (2006) p159

245Saramago, J., (2006) p163

246Žižek, S., (2008) Violence, Profile, pp180-182

247Habermas, J., (1975) Legitimacy Crisis, Beacon Press

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250Cited in Elden, S., (2005) p155

251See for example

252An oft-quoted remark that is of obvious relevance to this novel is the line from Berthold Brecht’s poem ‘The Solution’:

‘Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?’

253Cited in Fagen, R, ‘The United States and Chile: Roots and Branches’, in Foreign Affairs, January 1975

254Bourdieu, P,. (1998) Acts of resistance: against the new myths of our time, Polity Press, p28

255Bourdieu, P., (1998), p29

256Saramago, J., (2006) p100

257Badiou, A., (2009) Logic of Worlds: Being and Event, Volume 2, Continuum, pp442-445

258Fukuyama, F., (1993) The End of History and the Last Man, Harper Perennial

259Saramago, J., (2006) p100

260Saramago, J., (2006) p50

261Badiou, A., (2006) Being and Event, Continuum

262Saramago, J., (2006) p295

263Tonkiss, F., (2006) p134

264Tonkiss, F., (2006) p134

265Engels, F., and Marx, K., (2005) The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Classics, p255

266Harvey, D., (2002) p59

267Saramago, J., (2006) p283

268Lefebvre, H., Kofman, E., Lebas, E., (1996) Writings on Cities, Wiley Blackwell, p15

269Hardt, M., and Negri, T., (2000) Empire, Harvard, p339

270Saramago, J., (2006) p309

271 Lefebvre, H., Kofman, E., Lebas, E., (1996), p179

272Calvino., I, (1997), p148

2 thoughts on “Saramago and the City – My Master’s dissertation

  1. I’m bookmarking this to come back and read more. Another similarity in our life trajectories – I also did a masters in literature (Latin American) after a long time out of academia. Best thing I ever did. Even if it is pretty irrevelant to what I do now. Actually I can sometimes link what I learnt then (existentialism was my speciality) to my current work (psychology) and that’s when the magic really flows. Follow your heart and amazing things happen. Cheesy but true. Feliz domingo.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More coincidences! I’d love to do a degree in LA studies, the whole world of Carpentier, Magical Realism, Galeano, etc etc. What were you reading jn terms of existentialism, it wasn’t Clarice Lispector by any chance was it?


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