After the colossal failure of my first book pick in the Summer of 2012, with Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, I sought to redeem myself with my second pick. Hedging my bets, I picked a book I had read before, Blindness by Nobel-prize winning author Jose Saramago.
I first read Blindness in high school and had since considered it one of my favourites. The story opens with a man who suddenly goes blind while sitting at a red light in a busy intersection. Seeing his panic behind the wheel, a number of pedestrians come to his aid and one Good Samaritan offers to drive him home and escort him up to his apartment. After depositing the blind man back at his home, the not-so-Good Samaritan makes off with the blind man’s car and shortly thereafter, the thief too loses his sight.
Upon returning home to find her husband sightless, the wife of the first blind man takes him to the eye doctor. Puzzled by the case, the optometrist can’t determine the cause of his patient’s “white blindness.” The eye doctor, in turn, goes blind whilst consulting his medical journals for a possible explanation.
In the morning he asks his wife, thus far unaffected, to help him inform the head of his hospital and the Ministry of Health about the possibility of a pandemic of white blindness. By the end of the day he and the others affected are rounded up and put into quarantine. When the van comes to collect the doctor his wife claims to be blind as well but in fact, still possesses the power of sight.
The eye doctor, his wife, the first blind man, the car thief and several other patients from the doctor’s practice are quarantined in an out-of-use mental asylum.
In this work of speculative fiction Saramago charts the startling velocity of the descent into depravity as the asylum is quickly overrun with the blind.
Saramago dispatches with conventional syntax and only uses commas and periods to punctuate his sentences. In the absence of hyphens, semicolons or even quotation marks the pages are uninterrupted blocks of text. Dialogue is a continuous stream with limited attribution, as the characters remain unnamed throughout the novel; identified solely by a distinguishing physical characteristics, such as “the girl with the dark glasses.”
This unconventional style of writing has a sort of disorienting quality that parallels the blindness experienced by the characters. The narrator serves as a sort of one-eyed guide, offering several authorial asides throughout but often editing down the content of conversations between characters or making observations to influence the reader.
Several UBC members found the lack of syntax frustrating and felt that the density of the text made for slow going when reading the novel.
Others were deterred from finishing the novel by the graphic nature of the content. In his descriptions of the conditions of the asylum Saramago often fixates on the scatological as the facilities of the institution grossly underserve its sightless population. In addition, the nadir of depravity reached in the novel is of a sexual nature and for some, was very hard to get through.
This piece of fiction offers compelling commentary on human nature and our more basic instincts. The premise of the novel stimulated much discussion at our December meeting and allowed us to reflect on the tenuousness of our own civility.
While only a handful of members made it through the whole book, those who did generally gave it a rating of over 4/5. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys speculative fiction, considering the human condition, or is interested in exploring alternative writing styles as Saramago’s experiments with timbre and rhythm offer a fascinating counter-point to traditional syntax.
As you may know, there has been a film adaptation of Blindness starring Julianne Moore, and well I’m always a fan of Julianne Moore, I would definitely recommend the book over the film.
If you’ve read Blindness or seen the film please share your thoughts with us in the comments or tweet @UnputdownableBC.