Review: “Blindness” by Jose Saramago

I happened across the works of Jose Saramago quite by accident; the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek mentioned him in reference to the novel “Seeing”, in which a democracy ceases to function because the electorate decides to submit nothing but blank ballots.

Intrigued, I decided to keep an eye out for his works. One day this past February, I was forced to remain home due to poor weather: the skies alternately dumped snow and sleet on Chichester, leaving a cold, slushy mess which trickled into the gutters, flooded the streets and made the sidewalks impassable. I braved this to go to the local book store: there is only so much weather reporting that can one take, and the BBC had become particularly apocalyptic in its predictions, stating this was the worst winter storm since God knows when.

After sliding along the pavement for a time, I arrived at my local Waterstones. I had hoped they would have “Seeing”: no such luck. Instead, they had “Blindness”. I don’t regret their lack of selection in this instance.

Saramago is a Portuguese author, and perhaps knowing this coloured my impressions of the novel from the start. As I settled down into my chair with a mug of coffee and the novel, I envisaged sunnier climes, a clear contrast to the harsh, cold grey light penetrating my living room window. While the setting is not stated, I couldn’t help but think “Lisbon”: there is a definite southern European feel to it. I could imagine the old buildings and modern traffic lights side by side, and life proceeding at a sultry pace.

The story is relatively simple: a plague of “white blindness” runs rampant through the population. The first sufferer is struck down while sitting in traffic. From there, the disease spreads in a geometric progression: the optometrist who examines the first victim gets it. A thief who steals the first victim’s car also loses his sight. Other patients who are in the optometrist’s office also become infected, including a man with one eye, and a young woman in sunglasses. Strangely, the only exception is the optometrist’s wife, who tells the authorities she is blind in order to join her husband in quarantine. She helps her husband and the group at the heart of the story to avoid the worst consequences.

Saramago vision’s of humanity in crisis is rather dark; the authorities respond to the plague with panic, first by quarantining people in a disused mental hospital. Within the walls of the hospital, things quickly become unhygienic, and hardened criminals rule the roost; I was somewhat nauseated during a scene in which the criminals demanded “favours” from female inmates in exchange for food.

The plague, however, becomes total, and systems entirely collapse: after the group at the heart of the story escape from the facility, they find people are sleeping where they can, collecting rainwater to drink, and eating whatever they can find. Saramago perfectly captures the general dissolution and selfishness that would take place in this scenario.

However, Saramago’s writing style won’t be to everyone’s taste. Saramago utilises a lot of run-on sentences, and none of the characters are explicitly named. Under normal circumstances, this is to be avoided: however, in this case, it’s peculiar but it works. Even without names or a typical structure, the reader can follow precisely what’s going on.

The novel has a deep philosophical core which is particularly appealing: the book draws our attention to the fragility of what we call civilisation. Saramago goes into exquisite detail; he tells us what it would be like if we were deprived of water and sewage services: there is a touching scene in which the blind wash themselves in the pouring rain. While some people are unchanged in character due to their infirmity, others become feral: we are introduced to a blind woman who has eats animals raw. Knock one support of civilisation away, and does the edifice entirely crumble, or does it fall down temporarily, only to be rebuilt again? Saramago offers no clear answer, but presents a number of potential scenarios through his characters. There is the spectacle of the blind lecturing the blind in the streets, and the tragedy of the blind wandering into whatever empty edifice they can find to shelter from the weather. There is love too: the old man with one eye and the young woman with sunglasses fall in love, a scenario that Saramago implicitly suggests would not have taken place without the plague.

The best novels, in my opinion, make one think: Saramago’s “Blindness” is definitely a journey of reflection. On a day when the apocalypse was being proclaimed due to poor weather, it was interesting to have in hand a sketch of a genuine calamity. The novel confirmed for me that perhaps the worst of any disaster may not be the catastrophe itself, but rather what people make of it. I look forward to delving into the other scenarios, other books that have arisen out of Saramago’s fertile imagination; it is perhaps this hunger for more that “Blindness” leaves behind which is its most potent recommendation.

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