I read José Saramago's novel Blindness in September of last year. I had purchased the book years ago on a whim. At some point, I lost that copy and ended up buying a second copy. That then sat around for a year or two before I finally grabbed it off the shelf last September, determined to finally delve into the novel. The story sounded compelling to me the first time I read the synopsis. In the book, a man suddenly becomes blind while waiting in his car at a red light. The blindness causes him to see nothing but white. Soon, those who come into contact with him become blind, as well, and the condition spreads like fire, overtaking the entire city.
Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, which seemed to bode well for the book, and my reading of the first few paragraphs confirmed the quality of the writing. So I started reading and was soon lost in Saramago's world. He is an incredible writer, surely one of the best working today.
This book is notable for a few different reasons. First of all, Saramago writes in a manner that can be quite daunting when you first start reading. He uses very few paragraphs and little punctuation. There are no quotation marks to mark the dialogue, no paragraph breaks for new speakers and many times the speaker is never even identified. It sounds like a complete mess and there are, indeed, times when the story becomes somewhat chaotic. However, it works brilliantly. Most of the time, you are able to follow what is happening, even though it can be confusing. You typically have an idea of who is speaking and even when you don't, it never feels wrong or frustrating. Furthermore, once you begin to lose yourself in the story, the style starts to feel natural and you'll find it relatively easy to follow.
Saramago uses this style of writing in all of his books, but it works particularly well with Blindness. The style creates a certain level of chaos that fits perfectly with the story at hand. There is an immediacy to the work, as well, that really helps plunge you into the nightmarish world that Saramago creates. In the story, once the blindness has become an epidemic, authorities start rounding up all the people infected and send them to an empty asylum, where they are forced to fend for themselves. No one resides in the asylum to assist them, as they would quickly become infected and blind. Instead, food is left outside for them each day and the premises are secured by armed guards with orders to kill anyone who tries to escape. Every day, new people who have been infected or exposed are brought to the asylum.
The system within the asylum quickly becomes chaotic and hellish. One wing of the hospital is designated for those who are already blind and the other wing for those who have been exposed to the blindness but have not yet become blind. The story mostly takes place in the blind wing, which quickly devolves. Sanitation is essentially nonexistent, stress levels are high and the characters quickly begin acting like little more than animals. The one thing that holds them together is the main character of the story, the wife of a doctor who is not blind. She pretends that she is blind so that she can function undisturbed within the wing, leaving her free to help her husband, who has succumbed to the illness. She stands as the emotional and moral center of the story, helping those around her as much as she can without giving away the fact that she still has her sight, for fear of what the others will do if they find out.
The doctor's wife is crucial to the novel. She is kind and graceful and moral, a calm in the middle of a truly horrific storm. She is the only one who can literally see what is happening to the people around her and the love and caring that she shows is amazing. She alone seems to understand the true scope of what is happening in the story and she alone sees the full scale of the horror that occurs. The grace with which she handles the situation is incredible. There is one scene in particular at night in the asylum that involves the relationship between her husband and another blind woman in the wing. What happens between them and the way that she handles it is both breathtaking and heartbreaking, leaving you pained and awed and thrilled. The generosity in that moment is overwhelming.
Blindness is a story that deals with the frailty of humanity and society. It is also about human nature. You may be left feeling exhilarated by the humanity on display through the doctor's wife early in the story, but there are also terrible, horrible events within the book that will leave you shaken. The novel deals with a true breakdown in society and how that can lead to the devolution of the members of that society. There are parts that will leave you sick and disgusted--appalled at the inhumanity that can, and does, exist in the world.
Yet, the grace of the novel--the grace of the doctor's wife--never fails to shine through. This story is about all of humanity, not just the bad parts. There are moments of quiet tenderness that are breathtaking and devastating--but that fill you with a great appreciation of just how incredibly kind and generous we, as humans, can be. This novel incorporates the full spectrum of what it means to be human, stripping away society to reveal the basic elements, impulses and desires of humanity.
In another sense, Blindness probes the fragility of our society. One single change that sweeps throughout the populace leads to a complete breakdown in societal systems, transforming the human race over mere days. Stripped of the ability to see, society is forced to change and adapt, moving into a survival mode that, overnight, disregards years of societal training and instruction. Furthermore, Saramago shows how certain social barriers--age, class and race, for instance--can so easily be stripped away if given the proper circumstances. The story is intent on delving into the core of what it means to be human and what kind of base behaviors we are susceptible to, both good and bad.
Eventually, as the epidemic spreads, the story moves out of the asylum and into the city. The inmates are left to fend by themselves in a world they can no longer see or recognize. Again, here, the doctor's wife pulls them all together, acting as the center of the story and as a pillar of strength for the various characters. The climax is chilling and it speaks to something greater within us as humans. I won't pretend to fully grasp what it is, or to claim a complete understanding of the climax, but I could feel the underlying truths of that scene as I read it. There is something about the images within the church--you'll know the scene I speak of when you read it--that dug in and took hold of me. I don't know exactly what Saramago was saying, but I know I felt, on some level, something extraordinary in that passage about the human condition. And that, ultimately, is what Blindness is about. The novel is about our society and our humanity and will leave you both shaken and inspired about what it is to live, what it is to be human.
(Edited 2/9/05 to specify it was Saramago, not the book, that won the Nobel Prize for Literature.)