Blindness – Jose Saramago

Blindness by Jose Saramago came into my hands completely by chance early last year whilst I was working in a small Austrian town. It was well worn, somewhat battered and looked as though the previous owner was not its first. This could mean one of two things; either the book was well loved and lovingly passed on from reader to reader…or it was terrible and people couldn’t wait to get rid of it. Unfortunately it would be over a year later that I would finally get around to reading it, and find out which category it fell in to.

As the title suggests, Blindness is all about people going, well, blind. Who’d have thought it, ey?! It starts with a man driving on a busy main road, he stops at the lights but when they change to green he doesn’t move. He is severely agitated, screaming and raving about a sudden whiteness that has come over his vision – he has, within an instant, without warning, and without reason, gone blind. Another man offers to be a Samaritan and takes the blind man home before stealing his car. Hours later he too goes blind, as does the police officer who finds him. The endemic is spreading, and the ophthalmologist the original blind man and his distressed wife visited, has also succumbed to the blindness. Fearing that it may become a crisis of unknown proportions, the doctor contacts the relevant authorities who decide to place all the blind, and those who they have come into contact with, in quarantine. With little information, irregular food supplies, and no structure, the quarantine soon descends into pandemonium – the blind are fighting amongst themselves, using violence and rape as means of intimidation. The doctor’s wife, who refused to leave her husband and claimed to be blind to the authorities and the other internees, is however not in fact blind. And as the madness escalates, she becomes the only hope of survival for a small group of internees.

If nothing else, you have to admit that it’s a pretty great premise for a novel – it’s simple, plausible and very effective. This is perhaps what I enjoyed most about Blindness, that it felt real – we are constantly battling against the spread of disease, and it would only take one getting out of control to have a devastating effect on the population. The characters are also all ordinary people who commit the most atrocious of crimes in the pursuit of survival, and as the chaos and panic increases you begin to see strange precarious hierarchies emerge. In many ways it echoes the madness of Lord of the Flies but with adults “in charge” rather than a cast of school boys.

But what about the writing? Unbeknownst to myself before reading Blindness, Saramago likes to use minimal punctuation in all of his novels. In this case it worked extremely well; like the blind characters, we have only voice and tones of speech to distinguish between the internees, and even then it can be difficult (I must admit however, that it would have been nice to see some question marks thrown in here and there if nothing else).

Similarly, throughout the course of the novel, not a single character is referenced by name, something which echoes with the doctor’s wife’s own observations: “what use would names be to us, no dog recognises another dog or knows the others by the names they have been given, a dog is identified by its scent and that is how it identifies others, here we are like another breed of dogs, we know each other’s bark or speech, as for the rest, features, colour of eyes or hair, they are of no importance, it is as if they did not exist”.

Overall it’s an interesting novel that questions how human society functions, the precarious nature of order, and our own sense of humanity and survival. It didn’t bowl me over, BUT I feel comfortable in saying that it is an enjoyable read that, like my predecessors, I will be lovingly passing on to its next owner.

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