Jos & #233; Saramago’s Blindness Is Recommended Torture
Thursday, December 18, 2008
takes place in an unnamed city whose unnamed inhabitants are
struck, one by one, with a sudden "white blindness". The first victim
goes blind while sitting at an intersection, waiting for the light to
change. Frightened and in shock, he is helped home by a seemingly good
Samaritan who subsequently steals the newly-blind man's car before
himself being struck blind. And so on and so on, the blindness spreads,
until the government & mdash;in an effort to contain the apparent
epidemic & mdash;rounds up the victims of this cruel plague and ships them off
to a long-ago abandoned asylum. It is in this unfamiliar environment
where order and decency erode to match the dilapidated, unsanitary
The motley crew of detainees includes not only the doctor who examined the first blind man but other patients of his as well: the girl with the dark glasses, the man with the eye patch and the boy with the squint. Among the blind internees is also the doctor's wife, who is somehow immune to the spreading epidemic. & She has the foresight (pun unavoidable) to feign blindness when her husband is forced into quarantine, an act she keeps up for the first half of the novel. As the only sighted person in the group, she has the fortune and misfortune of bearing witness to the horrors that take place at the asylum, evils perpetrated in small ways by individuals upon each other (the car thief earns a gruesome comeuppance), in absolute ways by the military guards and in the most vile, disturbing and obscene ways by a group of thugs who manage & mdash;mostly to the detriment of the women & mdash;to gain control of the food supply. &
Saramago writes all of his novels with the same bleak, run-on sentence style that serves the mood of this particular tale brilliantly. He doesn't use any quotes and instead buries his dialogue into the rest of the text, creating an effective sense of disorientation apropos to the plot and requiring an exhaustive effort on the part of the reader. & He uses language beautifully, many times ironically, and in some places & mdash;without the hindrance of periods or paragraph breaks & mdash;he weaves labyrinthine stream-of-thought.
Both the presentation and the content of this story were hard, emotional work. Some days, I just couldn't make myself read. On others, I had to put the book down and walk away as the unfolding events became progressively more dreadful. Several times, I found myself suffering with one eye squeezed shut, my face turned a bit from the page, feeling a choking sense of claustrophobia and dread, a parallel universe to that of his characters.
This story is one of chaos, lack of rule and humanity. But it's also about a group of people from different backgrounds and social spheres who become connected through the mutual experience of blindness and captivity, powerlessness and isolation. There are religious themes throughout this compelling novel (the doctor's wife is a Jesus-esque figure and there is one literal-as-can-be descent into hell), yet Saramago doesn't preach. Instead, he skillfully offers an omniscient commentary on morality and painfully depicts the human will to survive even the most humiliating brutalities. If you can see your way through to the end, you will be left with much to ponder as you await the arrival of the movie version from your Netflix que.