Blindness by Jose Saramago

blindness

Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author, has had a number of his novels translated into English including Baltisar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, The History of the Seige of Lisbon and The Tale of the Unknown Island.  In 1997 his novel Blindness, written in 1995, was translated into English and a year later it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Blindness is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read, right up there with The Shining by Stephen King.  Unlike The Shining though, which is a supernatural horror story, the terror of Blindness is primarily derived from the darkness and complexities of human nature.  Sort of like a marriage between another King novel, The Stand, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Blindess is the story of a city which is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness,” which inexplicably spares all but one and spreads like wildfire.  At first, the government confines the afflicted to an empty mental hospital, threatening to kill anyone who tries to leave and supplying food only intermittently.  The social microcosm within the quarantined building quickly begins to break down and the criminal element emerges, stealing food rations and assaulting women.  There is only one eyewitness to the growing atrocities:  The character known simply as “the doctor’s wife” pretends to be blind so that she can stay with her husband and for some reason, she remains unafflicted.  Once the entire city has become sightless and the authorities can no longer keep anyone quarantined, the doctor’s wife leads a small group through the streets, describing some of what she sees, but keeping most of the visuals to herself as they struggle to survive.  Blindness is a powerful portrayal of both the very worst and very best of humanity.

Assuming that the translation, done by Giovanni Pontiero, remains true to the original style, Blindness is written in an unusual way.  Paragraphs are pages long and dialogue is not separated by paragraphs or quotation marks.  Capital letters and a comma indicate that a second person is speaking and periods are only used at the end of a conversation.  At first this was a little difficult to get used to, but it doesn’t take long for the brain to get into the rhythm.  I wondered why Saramago chose to write the novel this way and came up with a few possibilities:  Without the conventional dialogue punctuation you sort of start to read everything in your own voice, so the story becomes much more personal and internal, just as it must have been for the characters who were so suddenly left without their primary channel to the outside world.  Also, since nobody can see each other when they’re talking, there is no need to include descriptive phrases like ‘he said with a grin’ or ‘she said scowling,’  only the words are important.  As the story progresses, however, the group meets an author who is trying to document the events and who writes on paper by using his fingers to feel the indentations of the pen where he has already written.  I imagine the author would have forgone the more troublesome punctuation when writing this way so perhaps we’re meant to realize that the book we’ve been reading was written by the blind author.

I loved this book.  Despite the fact that it scared me half to death and that it was at times upsetting, horrifying and repulsive (a friend claimed that it must certainly contain the most references to fecal matter of any Nobel Prize winning work) I thought the book was magnificent — but it’s not for the faint of heart.  In fact, there is a movie out now based on the novel and I hear that it is just as difficult to experience as the novel.  Apparently there is a also a sequel to the book titled Seeing but I have not yet read it.

Blindness is available at noteBooks in trade paperback edition for $15.00.

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Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Agincourt

Bernard Cornwell has written over forty novels, most of them historical in nature.  Perhaps best known are his Sharpe stories, which tell of the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars.  Cornwell has also written series depicting events during the time of King Arthur, 9th-century Anglo-Saxon England and the American Revolution.  His latest novel, Agincourt, is a stand-alone book written about Henry V and the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.

The battle of Agincourt (October, 1415) has been featured in numerous works of fiction (it is the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V), has been the subject of extensive historical research and analysis and remains a source of pride for the English to this day.  The victory is remarkable because the English army was greatly outnumbered by the French (the exact numbers are a source of debate, but Cornwell uses the generally accepted 5,900 English v. 30,000 French).  It is also noteworthy due to the number of casualties (very few English and a significant number of French) as well as the number of French lords who were either killed or captured.  The English army had just completed a month-long seige of the seaside town of Harfleur, had traveled over 250 miles by foot and were suffering from both hunger and dysentery.  Credit for the victory is given in large part to the English archers.  About 5,000 of England’s 5,900 were commoners wielding longbows.  There were other factors involved, but I’ll refrain from mentioning them for anyone unfamiliar with the history and wanting to read the book.

The fiction portions of the book are only average.  The main character, Thomas Hook, is an English archer who has been outlawed for hitting a priest.  He travels to France and finds himself fighting for the Duke of Burgundy against the French king in Soissons.  During the battle he manages to save a French novice and narrowly escapes the traitorous massacre thanks to the voices in his head (he later decides the voices are Saints Crispin and Crispinian…the significance appears later).  Eventually Hook and the novice, Melisande, make their way back to England and Hook finds a place under Sir John Cornwaille’s command in King Henry’s army as Henry prepares to invade France.  Hook’s point of view serves as a familiar vehicle for the historical action.  The fictional characters move the story forward and make slow parts more engaging.  Cornwell is also very good at writing humor into fiction.  The wise cracks were unexpected but enjoyable.

I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the descriptions of the seige engines and the tactics of war.  The violence seemed a bit gratuitous (there were an awful lot of eyeballs getting popped and sliced) though I guess that’s probably accurate.  I would recommend Agincourt for its great descriptions of 15th century armor, weaponry and tactics. (Cannons were beginning to play a major role in battles during this time, and their volatile unpredictability makes for some grisly situations.)

Agincourt is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.99

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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