The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Blindness by Jose Saramago

I bought this book about a year ago with some book tokens. I had just seen the movie of The Road and then read a review of this one on another blog so I must have been in that kind of mood at the time.
Translated from the original Portuguese this story takes place in an unnamed city where its occupants suddenly go blind, painless white blindness, and it appears to be an epidemic because those who are only in the same room go blind shortly afterwards. As the blindness spreads the authorities struggle to know what to do and attempt to contain the contagion by herding the blind into a suitable secure unit, in this case an abandoned mental hospital, guarded by soldiers. Strict rules are repeated each day over the tannoy system, they will receive food parcels 3 times daily, will receive no help for the sick or dead or in the event of a fire, they must organise themselves and dispose of any waste, and any attempts to leave will lead to open fire by the soldiers.
Hundreds of people are brought in, unable to see, in unfamiliar and less than sanitary conditions, except for one woman who has not been struck blind but lied to remain with her husband. Through her we are able to see the ensuing carnage, through her blind companions we learn about how debilitating their condition is, to an almost hopeless degree. It is never explained why the doctors wife is not affected by the illness, nor is the illness itself. These things are not important. The emphasis is on observing how the human race would cope.
The food is more and more unreliable, and trigger happy soldiers mow down at will those who come too close, as we follow the plight of the people in the ward that contains the doctors wife who can secretly see. Soon the little food delivered is taken over by blind lawless men with a gun, and they demand various forms of payment in exchange for food. Will the woman who can see be able to organise and help those around her and keep her sight a secret?
We are taken through every horrific indignity in detail, the will to survive in the bleakest circumstances, the cruelties of a society collapsed but also the humanities that help you to carry on, and the kindnesses, however small, that give hope.
It took a little while, no more than a few pages, to get used to the writing style. Dialogue is not punctuated conventionally, so when the characters hold a conversation their dialogue is a continuous paragraph seperated only by comma's. There are some beautiful descriptive passages though...
'the others took a little longer [to wake up], they were dreaming they were stones, and we all know how deeply stones sleep, a simple stroll in the countryside shows it to be so, there they lie sleeping, half buried, awaiting who knows what awakening.'
The characters are nameless too, known only by characteristics such as the man with the eye patch, the doctor or doctors wife, the woman who couldn't sleep etc.
'Blind people do not need a name, I am a voice, nothing else matters.'
This adds to the stripping down of identity and dignity that these people have to endure. The narrator has the voice of a wildlife commentator watching an ant hill or bee hive colony, impartial observation but allowing a wry humour to creep in and sometimes a strange empathy. This comes out especially while narrating the most depraved behaviour in the mental hospital, and there is a lot in this novel, including some unbelievably shocking images during which I needed to put the book down for a bit. It was not long before I picked it up again though because from a few pages in, I could not put this book down. Even during the most base descriptions of living conditions and the vilest kinds of debauchery I had to keep reading because I was so sucked into these poor peoples lives and fascinated by the descriptions of human behaviour. It is as if the narrator is saying 'This is how human beings are', and we know that the narrator is right. There is a painful reality to everything that happens in this book even if the circumstances are fantastic.
This book brought home to me that no matter how much we have made an effort to make our lives civilised, organised and easier (if not more complicated), it can be easily broken down by just losing one of our senses. Society is just that, socialising with each other to form a community with an often unwritten set of rules or agreed patterns of behaviour, which would be quickly lost in a race for survival if order is replaced with fear and anarchy.
It also made me think about what it is to be human, the kindnesses which would survive between people should all else be lost. Yes there are cruel and thoughtless people who would think nothing of using such an opportunity to unleash their own ways to control others to survive, but the majority of people are not like this and can try to work together.
Please be warned, this is not a comfortable read, with often shocking imagery, and it does not hold back on this, as well as descriptions of insanitary conditions. There is dirt and excrement everywhere. Do not let this put you off however. This is a monumental book and I totally loved it, I have not been this excited about a novel for a good while. The subject and narrative style is not for everyone, but this is a book that offers a lot to think about, talk about, and learn from. Appreciating being able to see, everything, is a starting point, but also seeing, totally seeing. As some of the characters say in conversation...
' Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.'
There is a book group guide for Blindness, just use the link.
Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, just after this book was published and you can read about his life by using the link.
There is also a movie been made of Blindness, for more info use the link.
An amazing read that will be recommended by me frequently.


Sam Sattler said...

Definitely an unforgettable novel. It is so haunting that I have hesitated to read anything else by this author, irrational as that reaction is. "The Road" pales in comparison to this masterpiece.

Jeane said...

It sounds stunning. I've definitely got this one on my list.

Anonymous said...

This is a truly great novel. The images are so strong - I particular loved the segment where they shower in the rain later on - a wonderfully poignant moment that you to take a short breather from the horrors.

Leah said...

Sam and gaskella - thank you for your comments, I do feel as if reading this book is like taking part in an event of some kind that is shared by those who have previously read and enjoyed it. As you say, a truly great book.

Jeane - thanks for dropping by, if you have a notion to read it I would definitely give it a try. Like I say it is not always an easy read on subject matter or style, but it is unforgettable.

lunarossa said...

Shcking and chilling but, as you well say, an unforgettable book. I read it in Italian and the translation was perfect. Ciao. A.

Annie said...

I know I have a Saramago novel sitting on my shelves somewhere that my godson gave me for my birthday last year, but I haven't yet got round to reading it, nor can i remember which one it is. If it isn't 'Blindness' then I'm going to have to get hold of a copy. Thanks for the push.

Leah said...

lunarossa - good to hear from you. Be interesting how the atmosphere is conveyed in another tranlation, how the narrative voice comes across.

Annie - if it is another Saramago on your shelf I'll be interested to see what it is like.

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