Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Imagine a world in which everybody living in it had turned blind. It’s a pretty horrific thought, and in Blindness, Jose Saramago has created a pretty unpleasant scenario for what would happen to the world and humanity if this was to occur. Out of all the things that could happen to me, blindness is one of the things that frightens me most, and to be honest this book didn’t do much to quell those fears.

However, that does make it sound like I had a negative reaction to this book, which I didn’t at all. I thought it was fantastic. I loved virtually everything about it, the story, the ideas expressed, the slightly odd writing style, and most of all the way it made me think what I would do.

Told both by an omniscient narrator, and through dialogue between the characters, the story starts with one man going blind in his car at a set of traffic lights. Helped home by another man, he is petrified and quite understandably goes to see the doctor an eye specialist. Then we briefly follow the characters that come into contact with him, and any they in turn come into contact with, and gradually see them all turn blind, the way an epidemic generally tends to spread. Soon, the government is in panic mode and confines all the blind and those suspected of being contagious to a disused mental asylum, in a desperate attempt to stop the white blindness spreading. Everyone in the asylum ends up blind, except one solitary woman, the doctor’s wife, who pretended to be blind to be able to stay with her husband, and through whose eyes we see a lot of what conditions in the asylum are like.

Understandably, living conditions in the unit assigned for the blind are pretty grim, and organisation pretty poor too. Although promised supplies of essentials such as food and hygiene products, these very rarely arrive at the required frequency or in a substantial quantity, and the deliveries become scarcer as time goes on. There are also more and more blind people being assigned to the unit and more and more animosity from the army officials guarding them. As will happen in any place where large numbers of human beings are gathered with limited resources, a minority will attempt to hold power, and assert control, which for a while succeeds, but eventually leads to the ‘patients’ escape from the hospital, after some violence, and their comprehension of what the outside world has become with everybody blind.

I mentioned the writing style earlier and there is no doubting hat this book is written in a very odd style. Generally each chapter starts with the omniscient narrator setting the scene, and making moral comment on the events as they are unfolding, but then when the story switches to dialogue, virtually all punctuation disappears and it is never marked who is speaking to who, or when the speakers change. It shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. It seemed to transmit the sense of helplessness and blindness that the characters felt, and I think possibly the immense concentration that was required to read this book mirrored the concentration needed by the blind characters simply to converse with each other, or do anything vaguely resembling normality. Possibly I’m thinking too much here, but I don’t think this book would have had the effect it did if the writing was more conventional. Also none f the characters were ever identified by names. They are simply termed, the doctor, doctor’s wife, girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint and so on. The most powerful effect of this book is the sense of reality it portrays and that this could so easily happen, which is only achieved through the immediacy of the writing style, and the lack of names, so it is almost impossible not to put yourselves in the story to some extent. It could be anyone, anywhere. It could be you!

All through the book, there is a sense that what we term humanity and civilisation is a pretty fragile concept, and in dire circumstances, it will disappear almost in a flash. The particular group of blind people that we follow retain a small amount of dignity, but how much of that is simply because they have the eyes of the doctor’s wife to see for them is open to debate. Events both inside and outside the asylum show a world that degenerates into barbarism alarmingly quickly and it is an unflinchingly depressing view of humanity that is portrayed. Whether things would degenerate this quickly simply through the loss of sight I wouldn’t like to speculate, but you would have to hope not. But I wouldn’t be so sure. This book certainly makes it clear how much we rely on being able to see to live any kind of reasonable life. Horrific, harrowing, depressing, but ultimately fantastic, brilliant and I loved it!

Best Bits

“I only mean that this is all we are good for, listening to someone reading us the story of a human mankind that existed before us, lets be glad of our good fortune at still having a pair of seeing eyes with us here, the last pair left, if they are extinguished one day, I don’t even want to think about it, then the thread that links us to that human mankind would be broken,”


Annabel (gaskella) said...

This is one of my desert island books. I loved its style - it didn't take long for me to get used to it.
I did feel sickened and degraded by the conditions too, but there were some amazing uplifting moments - the cleansing shower of rain and the dog. I've heard that the sequel 'Seeing' is not as good though.

farmlanebooks said...

This is my second favourite book of all time (after A Fine Balance) so I'm really pleased to see that you enjoyed it.

It does show us how fragile our society is. It is scary to think that everything could break down after just a few days. This book made me seriously consider moving to the country. I haven't, but I have stockpiled a bit more food :-)

Jo said...

Annabel, I think it would make it to my desert island list too. I'm sure re-readng it would be just as enjoyable, and I think I'd get more from it each time.

Jackie, I'm fairly rural here anyway but I don't think it would make much difference. It may take longer, but I think the breakdown would be the same eventually.
It's frightening though, and I can see some emergency food stocks coming on too!

Birdy said...

Loved your reviews, just dropped by to say that! Adding you to my blogroll! :)

anothercookiecrumbles said...

Hmm, so his lack of punctuations while writing dialogues wasn't exclusive to Death At Intervals. Sorry - that's the first thing that struck me while reading your review, simply because it was one of those things that made Death at Intervals a fairly difficult read for me.

There seems to be a similar theme to Death At Intervals in this book as well, with the government going into panic-mode, after things start going awry (in Death, people stopped dying)!

Do love the paragraph you've quoted. Blindness was going to be my next Saramago anyway, so thanks for the review. It's going to be another whirlwind of a ride, from what I can make out....

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