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[46] Blindness – Jose Saramago

Blindness is Jose Saramago’s compelling novel of humanity under siege. White blindness created mayhem that relentlessly befalls the entire city and its inhabitants within just a matter of hours. In a bustling intersection, a man sitting in his car waiting for the lights suddenly turns blind-a sea of impermeable and luminous milkiness instead of the plunging darkness one usually expects. A “Good Samaritan” pedestrian offers to park his car for him (and steals it later) and takes him home. The thief then receives his comeuppance and is struck blind. The wife of the first blind man takes him to the ophthalmologist on a cab. Within a day, the cab driver, the ophthalmologist, the patients at the eye clinic and those whom the first blind man comes in contact with turn blind.

The government responds to this unprecedented outbreak by sending the blind to a desolated mental asylum for quarantine. Under stern surveillance of soldiers, the internees have to abide by the regulations that push them to the edge of humanity-bury the dead among them, maintain strict isolation from the soldiers who bring in food thrice a say, remain indoor as any attempt to escape or any sign of a seditious movement will result in death. The ophthalmologist’s wife seems to be the only one who has not succumbed to blindness. She becomes the eye of those who lost their eyesight. She becomes the one in whom the inmates find solace, comfort and encouragement that spur them on to living in the midst of great distress, pain, and anguish.

The book gets very difficult emotionally (in fact disturbing) as the mental asylum gets overcrowded and soldiers, who are seized by this formidable terror, overreacted and started opening fire at the inmates. While the army regrets having been forced to repress with weapons, the soldiers know that the commander seek to resolve the outbreak by physically wiping out the lot of the inmates. And the army has the effrontery to proclaim firing as an act for which the army is neither directly nor indirectly to blame. As food rations come sporadically and becomes meager, a group of blind hoodlums rob their fellow inmates of valuables in exchange for food.

At one point I am retching and completely grossed out. The quarantine system irreversibly deteriorates and collapses with it the hygiene and medications needed to treat diseases (as some inmates are stricken by influenza). Toilets clog and back-flush. Excrements pile and lay strewn on hallways. Smelling the fetid smell that comes from the lavatories in gusts makes the doctor’s wife want to throw up. Her courage, which before has been so resolute, begins to crumble.

The novel cunningly and candidly exposes how frail human society can be. The entire banking system collapses, the traffic thwarted, the streets are strewn with corpses, the dogs tear off flesh from corpses… I put down the book and ask myself: how could human dignity be debased as such? Isn’t it true that dignity has no price and life loses all meaning when one starts to make small concessions? Yet it sheds a ray of hope that one person’s perseverance can make a difference.

Readers will find nameless characters in this novel (the first blind man, the first blind man’s wife, the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the thief, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with a squint, the old man with a black eye patch). The notion of name is not important in the book as the characters succumb to their blindness. All that remains are the voices and the memories of the past with which each person makes of his identity. I have to say that even they are nameless, they are not compromised in their depiction but are very etched and real characters. I think blindness forces the characters to come in grip with their fear, weakness, shame and demons that enslave them before they are stripped of eyesight.

Those who are not familiar with Jose Saramago’s style might wish to practice a little patience with his embedded paragraphs and dialogues that are stripped of any punctuation marks. The prose can go on for pages without a break. In spite of the somehow difficult format, it constructs a sense of panic and tension as one read. It is for the very reason that this book is neither a quick read nor a page-turner. On a surface level, Blindness is a compelling tale of an unprecedented outbreak. In the core of the book stores a candid, relentless, but transcendental quintessence of humanity.

16 Responses

  1. Everyone seems to be reading Saramago these days. I am going to have to find something by him at the bookstore. I am not sure I will start with this one–it sounds pretty heavy duty. But then maybe all his work is like this?

  2. It’s a darkly beautiful novel that I try to tell everyone to read, and it’s one of my favorite reads. I hope soon to purchase the sequel, Seeing, which revolves around many of the same characters.

  3. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while. I think your review cinched it. I’m getting a copy of this book when I get back to SF.

    BTW: Have you read Camus’ The Plague? It’ll probably seem tame (even utopian!) by comparison, but it’s another great novel about civilization crumbling under quarantine.

  4. Mingerspice,
    You’re really digging my reviews 🙂
    I read The Plague when I was an undergrad. Guess what, it’s funny you make the connection to Saramago because it reminded me of The Plague when I was reading Blindness.

    It’s about time to re-read Blindness. I read it in 2000 after my mother passed away…I was feeding myself books to sober up. It was not until recently did I get to write about it.

  5. Mingerspice,
    You’re really digging my reviews 🙂
    I read The Plague when I was an undergrad. Guess what, it’s funny you make the connection to Saramago because it reminded me of The Plague when I was reading Blindness.

    It’s about time to re-read Blindness. I read it in 2000 after my mother passed away…I was feeding myself books to sober up. It was not until recently did I get to write about it.

  6. Saramago has this dirty way of pulling the reader in to his novels so well, only to drop an end upon them. I feel like he’s as much amused with the feeling of unfufillment he leaves the reader with at the end, as with the way he captures them throughout.

  7. I couldn’t stop thinking about this book the first time I read it in late 2004. I have re-read it again in the last two months. I have recommended it a number of times to people who enjoy reading (and to a Red Cross staff person for perspective on “big disasters”). I have read a few of Saramago’s other books, but still this is my favorite. I haven’t yet read the sequal – didn’t know it existed – but will look for it now.

  8. […] and poignancy that satirizes the absurdity of a white terror (evocative of Jose Saramago’s Blindness), which shuts off people’s senses, Snow has achieved more than narrating the country into […]

  9. […] Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin 6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 7. Blindness, Jose Saramago 8. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The […]

  10. Thanks for a fine review. This book was recommended to me when it first came out and, alas!, I have yet to read it.

    I know it’s around here somewhere….

  11. […] Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin 6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 7. Blindness, Jose Saramago 8. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The […]

  12. […] Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin 6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 7. Blindness, Jose Saramago 8. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The […]

  13. […] Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin 6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 7. Blindness, Jose Saramago 8. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The […]

  14. […] Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin 6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 7. Blindness, Jose Saramago 8. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The […]

  15. […] Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin 6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 7. Blindness, Jose Saramago 8. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The […]

  16. […] Fyodor Dostoevsky 5. Giovanni's Room, James Baldwin 6. The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco 7. Blindness, Jose Saramago 8. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham 9. Maurice, E.M. Forster 10. The […]

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