I finished Blindness by Jose Saramago recently; this is the first novel of his that I’ve read, and I liked it very much; it’s a powerful novel that is dark and violent but profound and moving too. The story is about a plague of white blindness that hits an unnamed city; it begins with an old man driving, stopped at an intersection, who suddenly can see nothing but white. The blindness spreads from person to person, eventually reaching nearly everybody. The city government desperately tries to do something to fix the situation; it quarantines the earliest victims in a mental hospital. They are essentially abandoned. Since no one knows what causes the blindness or how it spreads, except from person to person like a virus, everyone is terrified of contact with another blind person, and the blind people in the hospital are left to organize themselves, receiving only semi-regular deliveries of food from soldiers who stay as far away from them as possible.
For most of the book we follow a small group of internees as they struggle for survival in the hospital, which quickly turns into a vision of hell. They try to organize themselves to find their way around, to distribute the meager food rations, to find beds for everyone, to stay healthy, but how do you organize a hospital full of blind people? Even simple things like counting how many people are in a room become complicated, especially when these people have no reason to trust each other, beyond the idea, which not everyone shares, that trusting each other might help them survive. It becomes a question of deciding whether to trust other people, and risk being taken advantage of, or trying to make it on one’s own.
As I read, I found myself thinking a lot about what it would feel like to be blind, and, in a testament to how engrossing this book can be, imagining that I was blind, so that I would have to look up from my book and remind myself that I can see after all. I became so absorbed in trying to understand what life in the mental hospital was like, that I had to remind myself, no, you won’t have trouble walking out of your study and down the stairs, because unlike these characters, you can actually see. The book inspires a level of empathy that can be frightening at times.
None of the characters are named; they are known by some short description, the girl with the dark glasses, for example, or the doctor and the doctor’s wife. And their dialogue isn’t clearly separated either. Saramago doesn’t use quotation marks or new paragraphs for new speakers, and he doesn’t separate the dialogue out into separate sentences either. Everything blurs together, so that it’s difficult sometimes to know who is speaking what. He writes in long sentences, with many run-ons. I haven’t settled on a good reason why he does this, and I’d be happy to hear other readers’ thoughts on this.
But I suppose all of these techniques heighten the sense that this horror could be happening anywhere, to anybody. It’s not really important to have a specific city and specific characters’ names (although the characters themselves are well-drawn and distinct), and even to know who says what all the time. What are important are the power dynamics among the groups of people: the soldiers and the internees, the various groups formed among the internees, the men and the women, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick. Another blogger asked me what I thought of the book’s portrayal of women; I noticed the narrator drawing on gender stereotypes now and then, but it’s difficult to sort out what to make of this because the narrator is an elusive figure. The narrator moves in and out of the characters’ minds, giving us their thoughts, but at times, that narrator seems to speak for the city itself, and I don’t think I would conflate the narrator with Saramago. And at one point one of the women in the hospital, knowing she is about to be raped, worries that she will find some pleasure in it. This moment was jarring, a false note, I felt, but the rape itself is pure violence, as the woman immediately realizes. One of the novel’s main characters, a rape victim, finds a way of subverting the power dynamic involved in the rape, and this becomes an important turning point in the novel.
This is most definitely a dark and emotionally difficult read, with plenty of insights into just how depraved human beings can become. But it has a lot to tell us about what might happen in an expected disaster – both the atrocities people are capable of committing, and the beautiful, compassionate actions they are capable of as well.