Monday, October 29, 2007

Blindness, by Jose Saramago--a review


I finished Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness a few weeks ago, but had put off writing about it (mostly because I’m a procrastinator). But when Southern California was hit by the wildfires last week, it made me think about Blindness again, and suddenly the novel seemed especially relevant.

Blindness is the story of a mysterious epidemic that causes a “white blindness” that descends on an unnamed city, eventually striking most of its citizens. Among the first to become blind are an opthalmologist and some of his patients, and they are quickly imprisoned by authorities in an abandoned mental institution, to quarantine them. The opthalmologist’s wife retains her sight, but wants to stay with her husband, so she pretends to be blind. And so she is witness to the horrors of the epidemic, and helps the blind where she can. As the epidemic widens and society’s institutions fail, the small band of blind people led by the doctor’s wife have to adapt quickly to survive the horrific circumstances of a world without sight.

In this beautifully written parable, Jose Saramago explores just how fragile the concept of civilization is, and how quickly society breaks down in the face of disaster. It is an amazing exercise, writing this “what if” scenario, in which the writer brings society to almost total breakdown. But in thinking about our world today, it became clear to me that human beings often face situations--war, tsunami, wildfire—that strip away the trappings of civilization, and sometimes we are left only with human beings’ baser instincts.

Saramago’s writing style, disorienting at first, perfectly suits the subject matter; Saramago writes with a lack of punctuation, quotation marks, and attribution of quotes. I haven’t read anything else Saramago has written, but I’ve heard that this is his usual style, so he didn’t just employ it to illustrate his point here. However, it does so very well—at first one feels impaired and disoriented while reading, and meaning is occluded, but then one gets one’s bearings, and the writing becomes clearer, easier to navigate.

There is also something to be said for having to slow down while reading. I found there was a page-turning quality to the book, and I read it far past my bed-time, but Saramago’s unorthodox punctuation made me slow down, so I missed less than I might have from rushing.
I really enjoyed Saramago’s writing, too, because of his considerable descriptive powers. He describes his plague-ridden world without pulling any punches, describing a world full of excrement, vomit, the bloated bodies of the unburied dead, but also beautifully describes unexpected moments of humanity, the relief of cleansing rain, the “dog of tears”, who licks the salty tears of the opthalmologist’s wife.

I have to admit that I was hesitant to pick up this book, knowing the subject matter beforehand. I don’t generally read dystopian, allegorical or phantasmagoric fiction, because, to be honest, it often makes me uncomfortable. But this novel surprised me. Yes, it is unrelenting, but it is also beautiful. It was a page-turner, and it was unexpectedly funny.

There were times when I felt that Saramago’s version of a blind world didn’t play out the way that my version would; occasional moments I had trouble suspending disbelief. But that didn’t make it a less entertaining, or meaningful read for me. I found that the beauty of the language, the vividness of the imagery, and the urgency of the narrative more than made up for any doubts I had about the particulars of Saramago’s portrait of a world falling apart.

18 comments:

stefanie said...

I love this book. I read it years ago and still think about it from time to time. Be sure to read Seeing sometime. It is sort of a sequel and has many of the same characters in it.

Gentle Reader said...

stefanie--thanks, I will read Seeing. I certainly want to read Saramago again :)

Fay Sheco said...

The slow-mo aspect you describe sounds very appealing. Reading Proust has made this pace more understandable and desirable, and I'll keep Saramago in mind when looking for follow-ons to Proust.

Lotus Reads said...

What a nice review, thank you! I have a copy of "Blindness" sitting on my bookshelf but the last time I took it down the long paragraphs without any punctuation made it really difficult to read. But I realize now, from reading your review, that this style of writing helps a reader to slow down, thus making the reading experience something to savor, understand and absorb.

I don't know if I will get to the book before its screen version is released. They are shooting for it all over the city of Toronto...so exciting!

Gentle Reader said...

fay--I need things to slow me down, sometimes, and Saramago's style did it--which, as you say, is appealing.

lotus--it's a book I balked at reading, but once I got into it, it was truly a page-turner. I hope the movie is good! I'll be on the lookout for it :)

Bookfool said...

But in thinking about our world today, it became clear to me that human beings often face situations--war, tsunami, wildfire—that strip away the trappings of civilization, and sometimes we are left only with human beings’ baser instincts.

Hurricane Katrina would be at the top of my list of disasters that brought out the worst in humans. I was shocked at the way people behaved, fighting over gas and basic necessities.

While the "excrement and vomit" bit kind of turned me off, the book sounds fascinating. I don't shy away from dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels and I've felt like I sometimes even feel I can connect with the characters and situations, since Katrina. I'll look for Blindness. Thanks - excellent review!

Matt said...

This is one of my favorite reads, and makes me fall in love with Saramago's writing. Thanks for a great review.

I remember 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.

Gentle Reader said...

bookfool--I was thinking of Katrina, too, though didn't mention it in my review. Disasters bring out the worst, and fortunately, sometimes the best, in people--and this book actually highlights both.

matt--this book really brings up the big questions, doesn't it? I really enjoyed it, too, and found myself asking all the same questions you asked :)

jenclair said...

Thanks for a great review. Both the review and the comments are going to put this one on my TBR list!

Gentle Reader said...

jenclair--hope you like it. It's a really interesting read!

Stephanie said...

I haven't read this one, but I've heard such good things about it. One of these days maybe I will get to it!!

Nice review!

Matt said...

I forgot to mention in the last comment, the sequel to Blindness, is Seeing. I've got the trade paperback but haven't come around to read it. It should be just as good.

Gentle Reader said...

stephanie--thanks! It was on my list for a long time before I got to it, myself :)

matt--I've heard good things about Seeing, too. It's on my list!

John Mutford said...

This is my favourite book. I agree that it resonates with so much that happens in the world and it keeps coming back to me. So glad you enjoyed it.

I also agree that the style fits the story perfectly. Still, I'm curious to see if it works with his others.

Gentle Reader said...

john--I'm curious about his other work, too, and whether I'll respond to it the way I did to this book :)

Matt said...

Looks like I'm the only one here that wasn't all that impressed with the book. It was actually quite disappointing for me as I was hoping it would become one of my favorite books and ended up just being okay. Oh well, glad that other people liked it.

Gentle Reader said...

matt--well, it certainly isn't one of my all-time favorite books. And I can see why some people don't respond to it. Also, if it was hyped too much, I don't know if I would have enjoyed it as much--it was a pleasant surprise to me, perhaps partly because I wasn't expecting to like it at all!

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