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.