Blindness / José Saramago

Cover of Blindness

It’s been a long time time since I’ve read anything by a Nobel Prize for Literature winner. I read books by Pearl S. Buck, Hermann Hesse, and John Steinbeck in high school. A couple of years ago I read some Ernest Hemingway. I can certainly see why Saramago won the Nobel. The blurb on the cover of Blindness reads A shattering work by a literary master. I agree with the shattering work comment. It’s also a work of science fiction, though I’m still debating as to whether I think this is better than Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

A new disease settles on an unnamed city afflicting people with blindness. The government, anxious to protect the sighted, quarantines those afflicted in a former mental hospital, though it’s quickly apparent that will do little to stem the outbreak. Nevertheless, the soldiers guarding them continue to prevent them from leaving long after it’s worthwhile.

Blindness is bleak. I can’t think of a bleaker novel at the moment. The internees are cut off from the outside world. They turn on each other like rats. Saramago has them shitting in the hallways simply because the denizens figure if no one can see them they might as well. And worse.

One of the residents remains sighted though. When the government interned the first infected, the wife of the doctor feigned blindness to go with him. At first, her sight only helps with little things, though she keeps it secret. But when a late-arriving group of internees brings weapons and takes control of the wards, including hoarding what little food the army provides. Soon, the hoodlums are demanding favors from the women in order for anyone to eat. The doctor’s wife ability to see comes in handy here, but I must caution the reader that this doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does.

Eventually, even the soldiers go blind and the quarantined are free to leave. However, by this point they haven’t had food for a while, and the rest of the country has also gone blind. Social order is more or less nonexistent, replaced some by anarchy and some by new customs necessitated by the citizens blindness. The doctor’s wife can lead a small band back to their homes, but they wonder if there will be anything left to find there. They also need to decide what they will do once they return, as none have skills fit for a post-apocalyptic society, and even less so are their skills useful to the blind.

Saramago uses some literary devices. In reading other reviews, it’s apparent that he uses them in all his stories. But they are particularly apt for this book. None of the characters have names. The only time a name is mentioned at all, it is not the name of a character or person, but a generic reference similar to the term Johnny-come-lately. Even seeing that shocked me as it was stark in comparison to the rest of the novel. The lack of names emphasized very much the dehumanizing nature of their situation, and instead emphasizing their characters.

Saramago also eschews any punctuation except commas and periods. Commas aren’t used as normal either. What results are lengthy run-on sentences composing lengthy paragraphs. A co-worker was irritated enough that he didn’t finish the book. I liked the effect though. Through online hearsay, I understand that Saramago chooses this style because he wants to focus the words on pacing. It gives the work somewhat of a blurred, stream-of-consciousness feel.

I quite disagree with the assessment that Saramago seems to give about humanity though. I do not think losing our sight would reduce us to the state he portrays. I don’t think he even thinks that; it was a good way to introduce the kind of societal breakdown that he wanted. One where nearly everyone would be useless. One minor character in the book was blind prior to the affliction striking the population, and he shows a degree of usefulness that none of the others show. There are a number of other comparisons to actual blindness that are unfavorable to anyone not having sight. On balance, I don’t think our hold on civil society is quite so tenuous.

I don’t think sight is really the point (though he emphasizes it enough that it could be). I think he’s trying to explore what what people will do when they are stripped of civilization. Will they attempt to keep any amount of dignity? Will they organize? Will life have any meaning to them without a future?

A word of warning to those who are squeamish. There is lots to be squeamish about in this novel. Read at your own peril. This is not a happy book.

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