Turning a blind eye

This is my review of Blindness by Jose Saramago.

I put off reading "Blindness" for a book group because the topic seems so bleak: an entire population becomes afflicted with a "white blindness", an authoritarian government tries in vain to contain the apparent contagion by imprisoning sufferers and those likely to be contaminated, but society degenerates rapidly into "primitive hordes" bent on survival.

Despite this, and a translation which may lack editing, after only one chapter into the book, I was hooked by the author's precise, dispassionate description of the first victim's experience of a sudden loss of sight, his reactions and relationship with others. In a kind of "La Ronde" chain reaction, the malady is passed on in an arbitrary way, with the focus on a small number of well-developed characters. One of these is the only one to remain sighted, which adds an extra twist to the plot e.g. should she reveal this fact, how can she remember to conceal it, how does her sight help the others to survive? She is of course well-placed to observe how people's normal inhibitions break down when they believe no one can see them.

The inevitable grim decline into anarchy is leavened with surprising acts of humanity and promising signs of people beginning to organise themselves as a rational means of surviving as long as possible.

Ironically, the aspect most likely to make me give up reading was the punctuation: no paragraphs or inverted commas. Once you realise that a capital after a comma is the start of a different person's comment, Saramago's technique certainly helps the meaning to flow more quickly into one's brain, but does give rise to occasional confusion over the speaker's identity. It's also harder to flick back and check on a point.

Saramago's tone is sometimes moralising e.g. over the promiscuous woman who has more empathy and compassion than other more upright citizens. He shows flashes of tongue-in-cheek humour, such as over people's tendency, even in a crisis, to pontificate about or latch on to theories of redemption on one hand or principles of organised systems on the other.

The characters find time to philosophise:

"We're dead because we're blind."

"Without a future, the present holds no purpose."

"Don't ask me what good and evil are, we knew what it was each time we had to act when blindness was an exception, what is right and wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with the others, not that which we have with ourselves."

"Revenge, being just, is something human. If the victim has no rights over the wrongdoer, there can be no justice."

"Do you mean that we have more words than we need?" – "I mean we have too few feelings. Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express. And so we lose them."

"If I am sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow?"

Despite all their patience and ingenuity, all the characters seem doomed to die prematurely of starvation and disease, yet, as Saramago observes, death is our ultimate fate anyway. I am left unsure that I have fully grasped the author's intended message: I think he is concerned about the abuse of power, but seems more preoccupied with the individual soul than mankind's pillage of the earth's resources. Whatever his intentions, the book certainly seems topical in our current unstable situation and stimulates ongoing discussion.

The story reminds me of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", and in the same way, after a harrowing journey, ends on a perhaps surprisingly positive and upbeat note, paving the way to the sequel "Seeing" which I shall certainly read – but not straight away!.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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