Blindness, by the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, is completely different to The Double which I read last year. It’s an astonishing book. I don’t think I will ever forget it.
It’s the story of an epidemic of ‘white blindness’, which spreads across a city affecting everyone. The novel reveals just how quickly chaos descends.
It begins with the sudden blindness of a man at the wheel of his car, and though a stranger’s first impulse is to kindly drive him home - the opportunity to steal the car is irresistible. He is then taken by his wife to an eye doctor, who soon goes blind himself, and within 24 hours the others in the waiting room become blind as well. The only one not to lose her sight, inexplicably, is the doctor’s wife.
Before long they are quarantined along with other victims in a former mental asylum, and Part I of the story traces their adjustment to the loss of their sight, their freedom and their independence. The government abrogates their human rights, providing them only with rudimentary shelter, paltry rations, inadequate sanitation, and no medical assistance or supplies. There is also a trigger-happy set of guards, who eventually panic over the proximity of the internees and fire on them because they believe the blindness to be contagious. There are squabbles over bed allocations and sharing of rations; there is distrust and untruth; there is a distasteful dispute over the burial of the dead and there is opportunistic fondling of one of the women with a dramatic consequence – but that is nothing compared to what is to come.
In Part II, chaos descends. These circumstances soon lead to a diminution of community standards, leading to filthy, stinking surroundings; starvation; thefts; withholding of rations by a gang of thugs; and violence including gang rape, murder and arson. Saramago’s nameless characters descend into a hell of their own making, and it is not until a kind of family forms and they try to restore some kind of normalcy that they are able to escape.
Part III finds them on the deserted streets of the city, hoping to be able to return to their homes and perhaps to regain their sight. I read this part over breakfast this morning and it was not easy to put the book aside to go to work. (In fact I took it in the car with me, and then read to the end in the car park, arriving at the briefing with only a minute to spare!)
Nothing I have written here can possibly convey the way this book affected me. At times I was so transfixed by the horror of it that I had to get up and potter about the house as an antidote. For not since I read Lord of the Rings in 1973 have I been so drawn into an imaginary world that at times I almost lost my grip on reality. It was like one of those nightmares that is so vivid that it takes a moment or two to shake it off, after you wake. There are lighter moments of humour; there are philosophical digressions which intrigued me. But like one of the characters in the book I found myself almost afraid to open my eyes in the morning in case I too was suddenly blind, and just occasionally, when fully awake and doing something else, I found myself wondering, like her, if this moment might be the last in which I could see. Very convincing prose, to be able to do that to a reader!
Blindness is a powerful parable, reminding us about just how shallow our civilisations are. Saramago’s narrative style is calm, gently ironic, with occasional moments of beauty amongst the bleakness, but his restraint makes his portrait of a world without restraint all the more harrowing.
Not for the faint-hearted, but highly recommended. It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
Author: José Saramago
Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
Publisher: Harcourt, 1997
Source: Personal library