Lost in light: A city descends into chaos in José Saramago’s ‘Blindness’

September 30, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 30, 2014

In 1995, the Portugese author José Saramago published a novel in his native tongue. Two years later, a translated version of the work was released in English under the title Blindness, and it attracted a great deal of acclaim.

At some point, I acquired a first edition of the American publication of the book. I started reading, but I got no more than 30 or so pages in before I stopped.

I carted the book around with me from home to home to home, but not until a few weeks ago did I resume reading. (Actually, I restarted from the beginning. Quibbles, quibbles…)

This is a strange book, due both to the unusual proceedings that it depicts as well as as its unique style. The story begins at a busy intersection during afternoon rush hour in an unnamed city when a driver stops in the middle of the road:

Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it will not hold up the traffic, they beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movements of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind.

Who would have believed it. Seen merely at a glance, the man’s eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, his eyebrows suddenly screwed up, all this, as anyone can see, signifies that he is distraught with anguish. With a rapid movement, what was in sight has disappeared behind the man’s clenched fists, as if he were still trying to retain inside his mind the final image captured, a round red light at the traffic lights. I am blind, I am blind, he repeated in despair as they helped him to get out of the car, and the tears welling up made those eyes which he claimed were dead, shine even more. These things happen, it will pass you’ll see, sometimes it’s nerves, said a woman. The lights had already changed again, some inquisitive passersby had gathered around the group, and the drivers further back who did not know what was going on, protested at what they thought was some common accident, a smashed headlight, a dented fender, nothing to justify this upheaval, Call the police, they shouted and get that old wreck out of the way. The blind man pleaded, Please, will someone take me home. The woman who had suggested a case of nerves was of the opinion that an ambulance should be summoned to transport the poor man to the hospital, but the blind man refused to hear of it, quite unnecessary, all he wanted was that someone might accompany him to the entrance of the building where he lived. It’s close by and you could do me no greater favor.

This man’s story is tracked throughout Blindness, although he’s never named; indeed, none of the characters are.

And this is hardly the book’s only idiosyncrasy. The dialogue, as demonstrated above, involves no quotation marks. Spoken sentences are typically often separated only by commas regardless of which character is talking. The reader must parse capitalization to determine if a sentence is being spoken by a new character or the same one. A capital letter usually indicates the former — an exception being if the sentence starts with the first-person pronoun I, in which case the reader must use context cues to decipher whether or not the speaker has changed.

The paragraphs in Blindness are also extremely long; the second one in the excerpt above, which I have not quoted in its entirety, spans more than a page and a half. In the course of writing this review, I randomly opened the book and found a paragraph that began on page 126 and concluded on page 129. Searching for an even longer paragraph, I noticed one that started two lines from the bottom of page 151 and ended about a third of the way from the top of page 159.

So make no mistake: Blindness is a book that is challenging and unsettling in various ways.

For the story’s no picnic, either. A mysterious blindness epidemic overtakes the city — and possibly the nation and the world, although that is never made clear. The blindness has no apparent symptoms besides its sufferers’ inability to “see” anything other than an unbroken milky white field.

Initially, the authorities respond by quarantining blind people and those who have come into contact with them in an abandoned hospital for the mentally ill. Because the illness seems to be contagious, no attendants are left in the hospital to supervise or guide the victims in any way. The inmates are provided with deliveries of food and water — three times a day, at first — but otherwise left to their own devices.

The events that follow are generally awful. A woman injures a man who tries to grope her; he falls ill and dies when the soldiers who are guarding the hospital refuse to provide medication; the blind people struggle to bury him in the hospital’s courtyard; sanitation in the facility quickly declines.

New inmates arrive regularly, but conditions within the building continue deteriorating. This is partly due to a gang that begins extorting the inmates. (The gang’s leader, sightless though he is, carries a handgun.) Outraged blind men and women combine forces to impose a rough justice, but by the time the episode plays out, numerous individuals — some of them innocents — have paid a terrible price.

The inmates eventually find themselves free to roam about the city, which, in the absence of power and water, has become a hellish environment populated by blind hordes.

Throughout, Saramago focuses on a key group of sightless characters who are thrown together by chance: The first blind man, his wife, the ophthalmologist whom they consult, and three of the ophthalmologist’s patients — an older man, a young woman and a young child. The group is led by the ophthalmologist’s wife, who pretends to have lost her vision in order to join her spouse in quarantine. We never learn much about her, but she is a thoroughly admirable person — practical and kind.

Why does the doctor’s wife (as she’s called) remain sighted when every other character in the book seems to have been surrounded in a milky sea? This is never explained; in fact, nothing about the mysterious phenomenon is ever explained in the book.

The reader is left to cringe at the city’s collapse and the indignities suffered by all who live there. I found Blindness strangely compelling, even as its subject and style are off-putting. Although Saramago never names his characters, I empathized with their plight.

Still, I’m not quite sure what to make of Blindness as a whole. Is it a meditation on the fragility of civilization? The strong bonds that can form among strangers who are collected by circumstance? The need to love the people we’re with and to treat them kindly? The case could be made for all of these, I suppose; I’ll have to leave the assessment to those with more critical acumen than me.

Blindness requires patience and perseverance; it’s certainly not for everyone. But I think those who rise to the challenge will find themselves rewarded by the experience of reading the novel.

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