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Blindness by José Saramago
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero

Harvest 1999 (1995)
326 pages
Apocalyptic Fiction

There are some books where, as you are reading them, you can actually feel them enrich your life, broaden your mind, wow you with their awesomeness. For me, Blindness is one such book.

This is a classic example of “highbrow” literature because the way it is written is an artform, and just as important as the subject matter, but I wouldn’t want that to put you off. It’s not an alienating book, I don’t think; it’s not that it’s difficult to read as such, just plays with conventions a lot.

Set in an unnamed city in an unspecified but modern country, the characters are unnamed and their voices are “lost” amongst the prose. There’s no punctuation except for commas and full stops, and only one question mark which came from the undisclosed narrator rather than the characters themselves. The premise is simple: on an ordinary day, while waiting at the traffic lights, a man suddenly goes blind. Not black blindness, but white blindness. A bystander drives him home then steals his car. His wife takes him to an ophthalmologist. In the doctor’s waiting room are a boy with a squint and his mother, an old man with a black eyepatch, and a girl wearing dark glasses who has conjunctivitis. These characters are the first to go blind, and because each person they come in contact with goes blind in turn, the government decides it must somehow be contagious, and rounds them all up to put into quarantine.

The first such place is an abandoned mental asylum. The doctor and his wife are the first inmates. The doctor’s wife is the only person in the entire country (it’s unclear whether any other country suffered this epidemic of blindness) who never goes blind. She lied in order to stay with her husband, and then keeps it a secret, knowing that she’d be a slave to the blind people if they knew.

Conditions at the institution are worse than horrific. Put inside without any “seeing” person to help them, and then watched by soldiers, the halls fill with filth, they are unwashed and often starving, especially as food production diminishes and then stops altogether. When the population inside the building expands a group of men led by a man with a gun (the only man with a gun), takes possession of the food and demands payment – first in all their valuables, then in women.

I won’t give any more of it away – that’s more than I would prefer to say of the plot except that it seems necessary somehow. The doctor’s wife is the most likely candidate for main character/protagonist, but the genius of this novel is how the people, when they lose their sight, seem to lose their substance as well. Reading it, you often feel like you’re blind to an extent as well. Descriptions of people are few, but the environment is vivid. And as I mentioned before, dialogue blends, and there are no names, only descriptors. As one minor character says towards the end of the book,

“Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters.” (p. 290)

Reading the dialogue is a little challenging, as the only clue as to where one person stops speaking and the next starts is a comma and a capital letter – not helpful when their first word is “I”. This and the sparse paragraph breaks make Blindness a challenging read, because it does take some concentration, but it also gives you somewhat of a handicap, which adds to the empathy you feel for the people in the story.

Now, I’m hesitant to “wax lyrical” about the stylistic devices used here and how they intertwine with the story itself, adding depth and symbolism, because the last time I did that with The Road I discovered that the author always writes like that so it lost its impact considerably. I have the sequel to this book, Seeing, and I can tell you that it is written in the same style, but I haven’t looked at any of his other books.

Still, fantastic book, I highly recommend it, whether you’re a fan of apocalyptic books or not (I am, you’d think they’d be depressing but they’re not). I’m also interested in seeing the movie, ever since I found out it’s directed by Fernando Meirelle, who did City of God and The Constant Gardner, both amazing films, visually stunning, and the latter one was a powerful, fantastic adaptation of the book, so if anyone could make this book work as a film, Meirelle could.

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