Blindness by Jose Saramago


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.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I like your theories on the writing style. I also assumed the blind writer was meant to be the author. This may be the only book I’ve ever read without a shred of humor, which I suppose is an achievement. Keep up the good work.

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