Almost all of the caricatures of Jose Saramago emphasise his glasses-covered eyes and I now understand why. Having read Blindness, I feel as though I have really and truly been under Saramago’s microscope, dissected, disclosed, dislimbed and dissevered.
It’s an uncanny novel about blindness, sight and the very essence of human nature and society.
I must confess that when I picked up this novel I was not expecting to be transported into an alternate confronting (actually terrifying) universe. Saramago paints a very vivid picture of society’s descent into anarchy and reading it reminded me of America’s foray into McCarthyism in the 1950s.
Saramago’s story starts with a man in a car stopped at a red traffic light. The man suddenly loses his sight and unbeknownst to him, the light changes to green. The natural response of the drivers behind him is to protest by honking their horns which only makes the suddenly blind man more disorientated.
I was gripped from the outset:
“Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it will not hold up the traffic, they beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then to the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movements of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, no one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind.”
The story unfolds from this point with readers wondering about this strange malady which has infected this man without apparent reason. The blindness is both physical, as it spreads pandemically through the nation, and metaphorical, signalling society’s growing inability to appreciate the nuances of the individual and the descent into egocentricism and selfishness. Indeed, none of these characters have names – they are simply identified by their dominant characteristic (physical or otherwise). There is the ‘first blind man’, the ‘doctor’, the ‘doctor’s wife’ and the ‘girl with the dark glasses’.
I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see
The cry of “I am blind” leaps from one character to the next, transferred through the ironic ‘glance’ of the blind person. It is a terrifying concept this idea that blindness could be contagious – terrifying for the reader and clearly for the imagined government of Saramago’s book. The national response is to quarantine said blind people and anyone who might be contagious. What happens in this novel after the point of quarantine is unbelievable, but not, for it has happened repeatedly throughout world history. I will say no more, for any further disclosure will simply destroy the pleasure involved in uncovering Saramago’s brilliance in constructing this world. As was said about him in 1998, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he is a writer “who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality”.
This is not a comforting book. I say this despite the fact that some of the characters in this book are indeed stellar… I think particularly of the doctor’s wife who feigns blindness in order to remain by her husband’s side. What struck me about this book was man’s general ability to forget about the needs of others, to focus only on himself, to push the dying man out of the way and trample him viciously in the process. I was shaken by this and found that the moments of greatness exhibited by some of these characters did not overshadow the overwhelming sense that in Saramago’s world people simply don’t care. Like John Self, I think that this book “shows how fragile our civilisation is, and how always close society is to collapse.”