Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
I would like to thank Jose Saramago, Manucha Lisboa, Ben Sherriff and Silvia Morim for all their help and advice, and, in particular, my fellow Saramago translator Maartje de Kort.
For Pilar, every single day
For Manuel Vazquez Montalban, who lives on
Let's howl, said the dog
– The Book of Voices
TERRIBLE VOTING WEATHER, REMARKED THE PRESIDING OFFICER OF polling station fourteen as he snapped shut his soaked umbrella and took off the raincoat that had proved of little use to him during the breathless forty-meter dash from the place where he had parked his car to the door through which, heart pounding, he had just appeared. I hope I'm not the last, he said to the secretary, who was standing slightly away from the door, safe from the sheets of rain which, caught by the wind, were drenching the floor. Your deputy hasn't arrived yet, but we've still got plenty of time, said the secretary soothingly, With rain like this, it'll be a feat in itself if we all manage to get here, said the presiding officer as they went into the room where the voting would take place. He greeted, first, the poll clerks who would act as scrutineers and then the party representatives and their deputies. He was careful to address exactly the same words to all of them, not allowing his face or tone of voice to betray any political and ideological leanings of his own. A presiding officer, even of an ordinary polling station like this, should, in all circumstances, be guided by the strictest sense of independence, he should, in short, always observe decorum.
As well as the general dampness, which made an already oppressive atmosphere still muggier, for the room had only two narrow windows that looked out onto a courtyard which was gloomy even on sunny days, there was a sense of unease which, to use the vernacular expression, you could have cut with a knife. They should have postponed the elections, said the representative of the party in the middle, or the p.i.t.m., I mean, it's been raining non-stop since yesterday, there are landslips and floods everywhere, the abstention rate this time around will go sky-high. The representative from the party on the right, or the p.o.tx, nodded in agreement, but felt that his contribution to the conversation should be couched in the form of a cautious comment, Obviously, I wouldn't want to underestimate the risk of that, but I do feel that our fellow citizens' high sense of civic duty, which they have demonstrated before on so many occasions, is deserving of our every confidence, they are aware, indeed, acutely so, of the vital importance of these municipal elections for the future of the capital. Having each said their piece, the representative of the p.i.t.m. and the representative of the p.o.tx turned, with a half-sceptical, half-ironic air, to the representative of the party on the left, the p.o.t.l., curious to know what opinion he would come up with. At that precise moment, however, the presiding officer's deputy burst into the room, dripping water everywhere, and, as one might expect, now that the cast of polling station officers was complete, the welcome he received was more than just cordial, it was positively enthusiastic. We therefore never heard the viewpoint of the representative of the p.o.t.l., although, on the basis of a few known antecedents, one can assume that he would, without fail, have taken a line of bright historical optimism, something like, The people who vote for my party are not the sort to let themselves be put off by a minor obstacle like this, they're not the kind to stay at home just because of a few miserable drops of rain falling from the skies. It was not, however, a matter of a few miserable drops of rain, there were bucketfuls, jugfuls, whole niles, iguacus and yangtses of the stuff, but faith, may it be eternally blessed, as well as removing mountains from the path of those who benefit from its influence, is capable of plunging into the most torrential of waters and emerging from them bone-dry. With the table now complete, with each officer in his or her allotted place, the presiding officer signed the official edict and asked the secretary to affix it, as required by law, outside the building, but the secretary, demonstrating a degree of basic common sense, pointed out that the piece of paper would not last even one minute on the wall outside, in two ticks the ink would have run and in three the wind would have carried it off. Put it inside, then, out of the rain, the law doesn't say what to do in these circumstances, the main thing is that the edict should be pinned up where it can be seen. He asked his colleagues if they were in agreement, and they all said they were, with the proviso on the part of the representative of the p.o.t.r. that this decision should be recorded in the minutes in case they were ever challenged on the matter. When the secretary returned from his damp mission, the presiding officer asked him what it was like out there, and he replied with a wry shrug, Just the same, rain, rain, rain, Any voters out there, Not a sign. The presiding officer stood up and invited the poll clerks and the three party representatives to follow him into the voting chamber, which was found to be free of anything that might sully the purity of the political choices to be made there during the day. This formality completed, they returned to their places to examine the electoral roll, which they found to be equally free of irregularities, lacunae or anything else of a suspicious nature. The solemn moment had arrived when the presiding officer uncovers and displays the ballot box to the voters so that they can certify that it is empty, and tomorrow, if necessary, bear witness to the fact that no criminal act has introduced into it, at dead of night, the false votes that would corrupt the free and sovereign political will of the people, and so that there would be no electoral shenanigans, as they're so picturesquely known, and which, let us not forget, can be committed before, during or after the act, depending on the efficiency of the perpetrators and their accomplices and the opportunities available to them. The ballot box was empty, pure, immaculate, but there was not a single voter in the room to who it could be shown. Perhaps one of them is lost out there, battling with the torrents, enduring the whipping winds, clutching to his bosom the document that proves he is a fully enfranchised citizen, but, judging by the look of the sky right now, he'll be a long time coming, if, that is, he doesn't end up simply going home and leaving the fate of the city to those with a black car to drop them off at the door and pick them up again once the person in the back seat has fulfilled his or her civic duty.
After the various materials have been inspected, the law of this country states that the presiding officer should immediately cast his vote, as should the poll clerks, the party representatives and their respective deputies, as long, of course, as they are registered at that particular polling station, as was the case here. Even by stretching things out, four minutes was more than enough time for the ballot box to receive its first eleven votes. And then, there was nothing else for it, the waiting began. Barely half an hour had passed when the presiding officer, who was getting anxious, suggested that one of the poll clerks should go and see if anyone was coming, voters might have turned up to find the door blown shut by the wind and gone off in a huff, grumbling that the government might at least have had the decency to inform people that the elections had been postponed, that, after all, was what the radio and television were for, to broadcast such information. The secretary said, But everyone knows that when a door blows shut it makes the devil of a noise, and we haven't heard a thing in here. The poll clerk hesitated, will I, won't I, but the presiding officer insisted. Go on, please, and be careful, don't get wet. The door was open, the wedge securely in place. The clerk stuck his head out, a moment was all it took to glance from one side to the other and then draw back, dripping, as if he had put his head under a shower. He wanted to proceed like a good poll clerk, to please the presiding officer, and, since it was the first time he had been called upon to perform this function, he also wanted to be appreciated for the speed and efficiency with which he had carried out his duties, who knows, with time and experience, he might one day be the person presiding over a polling station, higher flights of ambition than this have traversed the sky of providence and no one has so much as batted an eye. When he went back into the room, the presiding officer, half-rueful, half-amused, exclaimed, There was no need to get yourself soaked, man, Oh, it doesn't matter, sir, said the clerk, drying his cheek on the sleeve of his jacket, Did you spot anyone, As far as I could see, no one, it's like a desert of water out there. The presiding officer got up, took a few uncertain steps around the table, went into the voting chamber, looked inside and came back. The representative of the p.i.t.m. spoke up to remind the others of his prediction that the abstention rate would go sky-high, the representative of the p.o.t.r. once more played the role of pacifier, the voters had all day to vote, they were probably just waiting for the rain to let up. This time the representative of the p.o.t.l. chose to remain silent, thinking what a pathetic figure he would be cutting now if he had actually said what he was going to say when the presiding officer's deputy had come into the room, It would take more than a few miserable drops of rain to put off my party's voters. The secretary, on whom all eyes were expectantly turned, opted for a practical suggestion, You know, it might not be a bad idea to phone the ministry and ask how the elections are going elsewhere in the city and in the rest of the country too, that way we would find out if this civic power cut was a general thing or if we're the only ones whom the voters have declined to illumine with their votes. The representative of the p.o.t.r. sprang indignantly to his feet, I demand that it be set down in the minutes that, as representative of the p.o.tr., I strongly object to the disrespectful manner and the unacceptably mocking tone in which the secretary has just referred to the voters, who are the supreme defenders of democracy, and without whom tyranny, any of the many tyrannies that exist in the world, would long ago have over whelmed the nation that bore us. The secretary shrugged and asked Shall I make a note of the representative of the p.o.tr.'s comments sir, No, I don't think that will be necessary, it's just that we're all a bit tense and perplexed and puzzled, and, as we all know, in that state of mind, it's very easy to say things we don't really believe, and I'm sure the secretary didn't mean to offend anyone, why, he himself is a voter conscious of his responsibilities, the proof being that he, as did all of us, braved the elements to answer the call of duty, nevertheless, my feelings of gratitude, however sincere, do not prevent me asking the secretary to keep rigorously to the task assigned to him and to abstain from any comments that might shock the personal or political sensibilities of the other people here. The representative of the p.o.tr. made a brusque gesture which the presiding officer chose to interpret as one of agreement, and the argument went no further, thanks, in large measure, to the representative of the p.i.t.m., who took up the secretary's proposal, It's true, he said, we're like shipwreck victims in the middle of the ocean, with no sails and no compass, no mast and no oars, and with no diesel in the tank either, Yes, you're quite right, said the presiding officer, I'll phone the ministry now. There was a telephone on another table and he walked over to it, carrying the instruction leaflet he had been given days before and on which were printed, amongst other useful things, the telephone numbers of the ministry of the interior.