José Saramago who died a few years back, was one of the great modern masters of the parable. Both parables and allegories are stories designed to be recognised as fictional pointers to some greater story, such as the story of a whole society, or the story of God; but whereas an allegory provides a very complete mapping of the greater story – think of Pilgrim’s Progress or Animal Farm- a parable only connects with its counterpart as whole story to whole story – think of the Prodigal Son, where Jesus sugggests only the most general likeness to the story of God and humanity (God and the father in the story are both embarrassingly fond of children who mess up). The details of the parable do not need to map on to the details of the bigger story, so Jesus can have fun with a broke Jewish boy surviving by feeding pigs. This freedom to invent novelistic detail does not detract from the parable’s function of making at least one bold point about the greater story.
Most of Saramago’s novels are parables although they are much longer than any told by Jesus. He uses the freedom of this form to create characters that arouse and retain his readers’ sympathy, and plots which are complex enough to keep them turning the pages, while suggesting by means of his narrator’s ironic voice, that they should recognise similarities with the story of their own lives in society; for he is above all a social critic, exposing the follies and brutalities of capitalist society.
Take for example “Blindness” his most famous and probably most violent story, which starts off from the absurd premise that everyone in a given society goes blind successively, except one woman. Almost immediately, blind citizens are herded into concentration camps by those who have not yet gone blind. Once all but one are blind, the stronger prey on the weaker as they have learned to do. Those who cannot defend themselves, especially women, are treated with sickening cruelty. The single person with sight finds that her only “benefit” is being able to see what’s happening, as she continues to be in a minority of, well, one. Eventually some victims begin to show solidarity with each other, and to think of opposition. Through equally violent actions, rebellion takes place, after which people begin to regain their sight. It is a parable about the blindness of capitalist societies to humanity and justice, and about the necessity of rebellion.
An equally dissident partner parable called “Seeing” explores the chaos which results from all election papers in a General Election being returned blank. It does not present an optimistic picture of democracy.
I have just finished reading his final parable, called The Cave, which of course rests on the famous parable by Plato, according to which prisoners bound in a cave, and unable to turn their heads, can see, on the cave wall, shadows cast by puppet showmen, lit by the flames of a fire, which they accept as reality. Someone escapes amd returns to tell the others that what they think is reality is only shadows, and that real life requires them to throw off their bonds and go up to the real world. His fellow prisoners treat him as an idiot, and it is said, would kill him if they could. In this way Plato describes the plight of most of humanity, who cannot rise to the philosophic vision of goodness, and mistake deceptive shadows for reality.
Saramago’s story involves a potter who works in a desolate rural region near The Centre, a huge industrial/ commercial/ social complex which offers accomodation, work and leisure to its inhabitants, while controlling most aspects of their lives, and isolating them from nature, even to the extent of providing artificial nature parks within the complex. The potter, who has been dependent on the Centre which buys his crockery, is told that his produce is not needed any more. He tries along with his daughter to diversify into art, by making figurines, but finds that Centre dwelllers have no interest in them. He and his daughter, who is pregnant, prepare to move into the Centre with his son-in-law who is a security guard there and has been allocated a flat. This involves leaving behind a rescued dog which they have befriended, with a widow woman nearby, for whom the widowed potter has an affection. One night the potter investigates a very secret archeological dig underneath the Centre and comes upon a cave where dead human beings, bound head and foot are placed in front of a wall. Behind them is a walkway, and behind it, the marks of a fire. When he asks himself who they are, he answers, “they are us.” He decides to leave, and returns to his pottery, his dog and it turns out, the widow who loves him. Shortly they are joined by his daughter and son-in-law who do not want their child born in the Centre. Together they pack their stuff on the potter’s aged van, and set off into the unknown.
The Centre is not shown as exercising any brutality. It provides wisely, “like God” someone says, for its inhabitants, while excluding anything natural or anybody who might have an independent mind. People are not forced to live there, but choose to do so, because it is the future. The characters of the potter, his daughter and son-in-law and the dog, are quietly but tellingly developed, so that the readers can imagine themselves in their shoes. Equally quietly but firmly Saramago makes his point: this modern, capitalist paradise is Plato’s Cave, where willing prisoners are sheltered from reality, including the reality of their own exploitation, and give up any desire to face it. The only hope for humanity lies with those who are unwilling.
The parable does not argue, anymore than Jesus argued with the lawyer who wanted him to define the meaning of “neighbour”. Saramago’s parable is longer than the “Good Samaritan” or “Plato’s Cave” but should not be embarrassed by their company.