All of us have, at one time or another, pretended to be blind. We close our eyes and reach out our hands in front of us, and try to find our way through the house -- touching the furniture, the walls, trying not to bump into things. This game doesn't usually last very long, it soon becomes disorienting and frustrating. My son loves to cover his eyes with his ski hat and say "Show me where to go!" It's natural for human beings to experiment, however innocently, with some kind of sensory deprivation.
In the case of Jose Saramago's wrenching novel, Blindness, an entire city, and soon a whole country, are plunged into a white blindness. It comes on suddenly, starting with one man driving his car, and soon the blindness, which causes people to see nothing but a milky whiteness, grabs every man woman and child and stops them in their tracks, yelling "I'm blind! I'm blind!"
This book has been recommended to me many times, and it's taken me several years to finally pull it off the shelf and give it a go. It is the single most frightening book I have ever read. I did not expect that, I don't know what I expected, something more poetic and delicate and dreamlike from a Nobel prize-winning Portuguese author. Instead, the book reads like a cross between Dawn of the Dead and Kafka. David Cronenberg should direct the film, if he doesn't already own the rights.
While the blindness sweeps the city, we become intimately acquainted with an ophthalmologist, his wife, and several of his patients, including the first man to go blind. It is with this small group that we enter the horrifying world of the internees -- the first people to go blind who are quarantined in a mental hospital on the outskirts of town. Heavily guarded by the military, unable to leave for fear they may infect those who can still see, they are deprived of even the most basic human necessities. With no one to care for them and guide them, and without the ability to care for themselves, the internees devolve into shadows of their former selves, forced to commit and endure the most unspeakable and unsavory things in order to survive.
Saramago's prose is fluid and endless, with no paragraph breaks, no quotation marks, and no concrete frame of reference. Yet the book reads like a thriller, and is impossible to put down. It's all just a masterful confluence of graphic scenes of misery and degradation, and soul-digging words of wisdom and insight.
One character retains her sight throughout the novel, and she is our guide to all the conflicting emotions and responsibilities that come with being the strong one, the helper, the martyr. This character hides the fact that she can see in order to help those close to her, and through this she is constantly wracked with guilt that she does not help the hundreds of others. But to do so, she would be ripped apart, for one person cannot bear the burdens of all of society. In this godforsaken world of blind savages, the human will to survive is nothing heroic or graceful, it is merely selfish, intuitive and animal.
The allegorical nature of Blindness is complex, and like all great art, can be interpreted in many ways. While reading about the decrepit nature of the city and its helpless inhabitants, I could not help but think of New Orleans, a once thriving and beautiful place reduced (however temporarily) to a completely destroyed zone of putrid water, dead bodies, and lawlessness. Is this what comes of disaster on a grand scale? Can human beings come together and organize themselves in the face of an unspeakable cataclysm? Saramago asks these questions eloquently, terrifyingly, intimately. We need only wait for the arrival of the Avian Flu to find out the answers.
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Paperback. 352 pages.