Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2011

Blindness (1997), by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero

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
Title: Blindness
Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
Publisher: Harcourt, 1997
ISBN: 9780151002511
Source: Personal library



  1. Blindness is a book which remains with you long after you finish it. I understand a movie has been made of the book, but I am reluctant to see it because the pictures in my mind are still so vivid.

    Blindness is Saramago’s best known book, but I was most impressed by All the Names:


    • Oh no, I don’t think I could bear a movie of this – I mean, how could they possibly convey the claustrophobic feeling, the stench, the starvation? It would be a travesty!
      BTW I’ve read your review of All the Names, now it’s next on my list to seek out, thanks:)


  2. I see Margaret Jull Costa – Spanish/Portuguese to English master translator – wasn’t the in on this one. Sounds intriguing nontheless!


    • Hola Troy!
      She was, a little bit. (Your comment reminded me to add the publishing details including the translator, thanks!) It was translated by Giovanni Pontiero, but there’s a note at the end of the book to say that he died before he could make the final revisions and that Margaret Juli Costa helped out with this.
      It’s a very good translation.


  3. This has been on my radar for a while Lisa, but I still haven’t got to it. Love your review … And the fact that it made such an impact on you.


    • 24 hours later, and I’m still relishing being able to see!


      • Anything that has you thinking hours and days after has to be powerful … on a dfiferent tack, I went to the Fred Williams exhibition at the NGA on Wednesday, at it keeps coming back to me. I like that it does.


  4. I think the world of Cormac McCarthy, especially All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. After reading Blindness, you can’t tell me The Road is worth reading. Saramago is one of the truly under-appreciated writers. Thanks for sharing such a great review!


    • Thanks, Sean. This is why I love the Nobel Prize, because it has introduced me to such brilliant authors.


  5. Sounds brilliant! I purchased this book a few months ago on a whim because I had heard good things about the author. I am glad that this is the first of his books I will try


    • Looking forward to your review!


  6. I enjoyed Death by Intervals but this sounds like a more powerful book. As it happens I do have a copy on the shelf… Wonderful, persuasive review, Lisa. Thanks for reminding me that I haven’t read it yet!


  7. You discovered a gem, Lisa. Saramago is a fantastic writer. Another of his books that’s worth reading is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which is about, among other things, the Portuguese Modernist poet Fernando Pessoa. The central conceit of the novel is that one of Pessoa’s heteronyms, Ricardo Reis, survives Pessoa and returns to Lisbon from Brazil in the 1930s to “meet his maker.” It’s a beautiful work and one of the best novels of the 1980s. Put it near the top of your reading list (after you finish The Tin Drum, that is!)


    • Hello Evan and thank you for joining in the conversation:)
      So, I must read The Tin Drum first, eh? Well *laughing* I’m happy to take good advice, but first you must tell me why. As of today I have 552 books on my TBR (not counting strays sent by publishers for review, and then there are another 29 that I had set aside to read this year (and there’s only 10 weeks left (give-or-take a day or two) to read ’em i.e. I’m going to have to cull anyway). So, convince me: why should I push the following out of their rightful place in the queue, eh? And which one would you bump?
      My Name is Red; A Confederancy of Dunces; Independence Day; The Carpathians; Kafka on the Shore; Alias Grace; The March (Doctorow); Europe Central; The Solitude of Prime Numbers; Travels with Herodotus; The Concert (Kadare); The Leopard; Doctor Faustus; The Divine Comedy; The Rings of Saturn; Germinal; Zorba the Greek; The Decameron; In the New Country (Foster); The Death of the Body; Going West (Gee); Summertime (Coetzee); Holiday (Middleton); Siddharta; Blue Skies (Hodgman); Past the Shallows (Parrett); Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds; The Multiple Eeffects of Rainshadow;and The Anatomy of Wings.
      PS The rules of the game are that you can’t just bump the ones from Australia and New Zealand that you haven’t heard of, especially not the debut authors.


  8. Ouch. That’s quite an impressive list. Forget I said anything (but, then again, you won’t regret getting acquainted with The Tin Drum!)


    • Ouch is right…there’s no way I can read them all, and especially not Europe Central which is a great big brick… grand plans made way back in January seem to have been waylaid by serendipity!


  9. Ah, Saramago! It’s beyond love that I have for his works, really. And SilverSeason is so right. All the Names is most spectacular. Thanks for the review.


    • I’ve got Death with Interruptions on the TBR, I shall put that into my 2012 reading plans!


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