Thursday, 13 June 2013

'Blindness' by José Saramago (Review)

Recently, I read my first book by José Saramago, and the success of that venture inevitably led to a second look at the Portuguese Nobel-Prize-winner's world.  While Raised from the Ground is perhaps a lesser-known work, today's review looks at what might be his most famous novel.  As always though, the question is, is it any good?

Blindness (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, some revision by Margaret Jull Costa) is a great example of literary speculative fiction, with the whole premise of the book hinging on one single 'what if'.  The novel begins with a queue of frustrated drivers at a set of traffic lights, angry at a man who is sitting in front of a green light.  When someone comes to see what has happened, the explanation is unexpected - the man has gone blind.  But he's just the first...

Slowly, the blindness begins to spread, first to those around the blind man, and then to all the people they have contact with.  Before long, the government is forced to lock those affected in an old, abandoned mental institute in an attempt to stop the spread of the blindness before it is too late.  However, one of the people detained in the makeshift hospital-cum-prison has a secret - you see, she seems to be immune to the sickness...

It's a great premise and a great book, the story of an unprecedented epidemic and its consequences.  Even the type of blindness is unusual: not only is it contagious, but also milky-white...  As the first man to go blind says:
"He had even reached the point of thinking that the darkness in which the blind live was nothing other than the simple absence of light, that what we call blindness was something that simply covered the appearance of beings and things, leaving them intact behind their black veil.  Now, on the contrary, here he was, plunged into a whiteness so luminous, so total, that it swallowed up rather than absorbed, not just the colours, but the very things and beings, thus making them twice as invisible."
p.8 (Vintage, 2005)
The doctor's wife, the only person untouched by the epidemic, acts as the reader's eyes in this world of the blind.  Through her, we can see how, after initial panic and imprisonment, society starts to crumble as people come to terms with the thought that this may not be a passing event.  What would we do if everyone eventually went blind?

One of the most fascinating aspects of the story is the action taken by the authorities.  Those affected are immediately isolated from the rest of society as the government tries desperately to halt the possibility of an epidemic.  Despite claims that those afflicted would be looked after, the ethical dilemmas of the situation mean that they are effectively abandoned, with those outside struggling just to keep their sight.  The recorded loudspeaker announcements each day (the only way many of the 'patients' have of marking time) become increasingly ludicrous.  In claiming that "everything is going to be all right" if the blind people cooperate, there are obvious allusions to Nazi labour camps...

The scenario also allows the writer to explore what happens when people are unable to look after themselves.  Trapped in the hospital, with no supplies of any kind (and with soldiers ready to shoot them if they set foot outside the building), the norms of hygiene quickly disappear.  The floors are covered with human waste, and very soon other diseases begin to spread.  However, things are no better outside: cities are soon brought to a standstill (driving, for obvious reasons, is decidedly tricky), and the streets fill with rubbish and filth.  It doesn't take long for society to revert to a system of small groups or clans, each looking out for its own interests.

While the physical degradation is bad enough, the effect the blindness has on people's morals is worse.  The inmates immediately descend into squabbles and try to cheat each other out of food.  The soldiers outside loathe and fear the people (or things...) they are guarding, and once it becomes clear that the outside world is not going to get involved in matters inside the hospital, things get very ugly indeed.  This is a book which can be very disturbing in parts...

In such a disturbing world, it's the little things that help.  Rather than money or jewels, people just want some food, a bath, clean clothes.  Even water is becoming a luxury, one to be savoured when it is available:
"This time she took the lamp and went to the kitchen, she returned with the bottle, the light shone through it, it made the treasure inside sparkle.  She put it on the table, went to fetch the glasses, the best they had, of finest crystal, then, slowly, as if she were performing a rite, she filled them.  At last, she said, Let's drink.  The blind hands groped and found the glasses, they raised them trembling.  Let's drink, the doctor's wife said again.  In the middle of the table, the lamp was like a sun surrounded by shining stars.  When they had put the glasses back on the table, the girl with the dark glasses and the old man with the eyepatch were crying." (p.262)
It's a nice moment, but one which is surrounded by (a milky-white) darkness.  Surely, this can't go on for ever?

The story, in itself, is impressive enough, but Saramago's style gives it a little something more, making the novel even more fantastic.  Although there are chapters, most of them consist of fairly long paragraphs, full of unbroken sentences, streams of thoughts connected by commas.  There are no quotation marks, and a change of speaker is indicated by a comma and a capital letter - long, quick-moving conversations can be very tricky to follow.  Blindness has no real names for its characters, with each being described by their function or distinguishing features (the first blind man, the doctor, the girl with dark glasses), a choice which intensifies the (deliberate) feeling of disorientation.
"...we're so remote from the world that any day now, we shall no longer know who we are, or even remember our names, and besides, 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..." (p.55)
In the land of the blind, voices are much more useful than names...

Returning to my question - is it any good?  Of course it is - it's a wonderful novel.  Credit must go again to the translator, this time Giovanni Pontiero, for the excellent work done in bringing this unique style across into English.  I can't wait to read more of Saramago's work, in particular Seeing, the sequel to Blindness.

I do like it when I find another great writer who's written lots of books :)