Wednesday, April 04, 2012

151. Blindness by Jose Saramago

Blindness (Vintage Classics, 1997; 309; translated by Giovanni Pontiero) is a story that investigates human behaviour with political undertones; what makes someone do one thing and not the other; does the conscience behind an activity matter?  Jose Saramago, the 1998 Nobel Laureate, used this experimental book to investigate these issues in ways similar to William Golding's Lord of the Flies.

People are suddenly going blind in an unnamed city. A man in his car, waiting for the traffic light to turn from red to amber and then green, suddenly lost his sight. The Good Samaritan who took him home and later stole his car also lost his sight. The doctor who looked at his strange case lost his sight in his house whilst researching more on the man's conditions; a prostitute who had just left the doctor's place and was meeting her client got blind whilst having sex with this man.

The authorities in order to contain, what became known as the white blindness - because the people were seeing a sea of milky white instead of the total blackness as described by the 'normally' blind people - quarantined them in a mental asylum where all contacts with the outside world were broken. All those who came into contact with these individuals were also detained and quarantined in a different section of the building. With time those who became blind were transferred, by their own people, to the blind section. The doctor's wife who was not blind but pretended to be in order to be close to her husband and five others, including the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, car thief, an old man with black eyepatch were the first six to be quarantined. When the first batch of the blind was settled in their wards, the authorities sounded the warning giving them a long list of rules and what is expected of them. Any attempt to escape will be met with instant death by shooting, they will do their own washing and bury their dead. Food will be given to them at specific times and they are to come for them themselves, near the gate. The doctor's wife, unaffected by the disease, tried to keep order but she would later give up because she was both overwhelmed and afraid (fear imbued into him by her husband) to inform the masses that she could see.

As the contagion spread and the number of inmates increase, the sanitation and personal hygiene began to  deteriorate. Prior to that the car thief, who had earlier been identified by the first blind man by his voice and who had tried fumbling the breasts of the girl with dark glasses and whom the girl had stamped with the heel of her shoe, had died from the wounds he sustained and had been buried. Amongst the masses there were those who were indolent and those who cheat people out of food. Though the level of organisation among them was low, the doctor's wife - who had still not been infected and would be the only one in the whole city to keep her sight - tried to put some form of order in whatever they do. But unable to control them completely lest they question her and also because the taps failed to run and the toilets were full, the people began desecrating their living spaces and, being blind, they walked in them and slept in them. Drivers who, in another life and place, had or would have complained and whom pedestrian had or would have described as inconsiderate and uncompassionate were now complaining about their being treated badly. As the numbers kept increasing (though the military and the authorities also became infected, they were not sent to a different place) chaos set in and because the asylum became a microcosm of the city in particular and by extension of the world, there were those who by their strength (and with their smart thinking had smuggled weapons into the asylum and were also able to fabricate new ones) gathered together and oppressed the people. They became the overlords and requesting the people to purchase the food, which was given to them free with their valuables, failure to obey would mean starvation for the entire ward; by then the rate of delivery had decreased and there was also no specific time for delivery. These thugs would later request the women from each ward to pay for their ward's food with a steamy orgy. These thugs excelled in their oppression of the masses, because they were organised so that a group of twenty could and did rule a people of over three hundred. It was clear that the people were set on the path to their devolution; moving from whatever they were at the time achronologically into the period when man was a base animal.

But the doctor's wife would lead a revolt one evening, during a blind orgy, and would kill the leader and that power that they held over them would dissolve and the people would be free. However, at this time the contagion had spread with such speed and ferocity that everyone in the city had already become blind, including the soldiers who were keeping watch, and the food producers. One of the women inmates, tired of the general life in the asylum, started a fire that caught the building in no time. It was this fire, while killing several inmates, that would set most of them free and it was then they would realise that their inability to get food, which most of them had blamed on the woman who had killed the leader - because had she not killed him they would still have had food, was because everybody was now blind. Back in the city of the blind, the group of seven - containing five of the first batch and two others: the old man with the eyepatch and the boy with the squint - led by the doctor's wife, had to find ways to survive this human catastrophe on their own. Having now been told them that she could seen and had was not blind, she would inform them of whatever was happening or had happened to the city. With stores looted and no food available she had to compose herself, physically (for she was an old woman of about fifty) and mentally (for the decisions she had to take and the filth and dirt she had to see and participate in, worse for her because she knows and sees what is happening) to keep her people alive. The six blind people were happy to know that they have one unblind person leading them; they each went to their homes only to be met by new occupants. People unable to find their way home had taken occupancy of the nearest rooms they could find. Needless to say water and food were a scarce commodity and dogs competed against each other for cadavers and corpses. So much filth had filled the city and so heavy was the stench of decomposition that windows now had to be kept closed. And when it rains they stand in it, clean themselves and collect some for drinking and through that the city got cleaned too, somewhat. 

The book could be describe as a compendium of scatology and not just for the shock value or to depict how we can be but rather how we are. It shows that it takes little to descend to the abyss of the social structure perhaps faster than it takes to ascend for all that is required is the breakdown in leadership, laws and awareness and all these are easy to lose than to develop or maintain. As a commentary on politics and governance there were several references to communal living, to the importance of working together to achieve a specific goal. For instance, regarding the idea of putting all the food supplies together and sharing the bulk, Saramago writes
[T]he concentration of food supplies into a single entity for apportioning and distribution, had its positive aspects, after all, however much certain idealists might protest that they would have preferred to go on struggling for life by their own means, even if their stubbornness meant going hungry. [144]
Then as a commentary against competition and its bias against the weak, he writes
There were blind inmates lying up against the walls, those who on arrival had been unsuccessful in finding a bed, either because in the assault they had lagged behind, or because they lacked the strength to contest a bed and win their battle. [146]
Thus, Saramago shows that the only way to come out of such a predicament is to work together rather than compete against each other which only worsens the situation. In the end bonds, that would under no circumstances be formed had there not been blindness, were formed. The girl with the dark glasses who was considered beautiful in all aspect latched onto the old man with the eyepatch. Rid of everything, of the very things that make us arrogant and think of ourselves superior, we are left with the purest form of love, a sense of affinity, which distinguishes not and calls out to whomever it wants. 

Using the case of the car thief and a prostitute (or the girl with the dark glasses) Saramago argues that choice and conscience are very important and it is what separates negative from positive. Though the girl is a prostitute in every sense of the word, Saramago admonishes against the use of the word because it is her decision to sleep with men in exchange for money and pleasure and that she does so by choosing the man she wants and when she wants. He writes
[T]his woman could be classed as a prostitute, but the complexity in the web of social relationships, whether by day or night, vertical or horizontal, of the period here described cautions us to avoid a tendency to make hasty and definitive judgments, a mania which, owing to our exaggerated self-confidence, we shall perhaps never be rid of. ... Without any doubt, this woman goes to bed with men in exchange for money, a fact that might allow us to classify her without further consideration as a prostitute, but, since it is also true that she only goes with a man when she feels like it and with whom she wants, we cannot dismiss the possibility that such a factual difference, must as a precaution determine her exclusion from the club as a whole. She has, like ordinary people, a profession, and, also like ordinary people, she takes advantage of any free time to indulge her body and satisfy needs, both individual and general. Were we not trying to reduce her to some primary definition, we should finally say of her, in the broad sense, that she lives as she pleases and moreover gets all the pleasure she can from life. [23/4]
Blindness is the work of an experiential writer but it is also experimental. Its experimentalism is on several fronts. First the narrative style is different. There are no inverted commas or apostrophes to indicate dialogues; full stops are sparingly used; and questions are to be inferred from the way they are written, there are no question marks to indicate them. The beginning of a dialogue is marked by capitalisation of the first word that begins the sentence and the response is separated from the previous by a comma - they are not arranged in paragraphs as is commonly done but flow into longer sentences. Initially, the reader might think this to be difficult but no such difficulty is observed. Consequently, the sentences were rather long and paragraphs lengthy. Another item to note in this masterpiece is names. There were no proper nouns in this book. No names of persons or of places. Each person is identified by something unique about him, temporary or permanent. There was the city, the man with the eyepatch, the girl with the dark glasses, the wife of the doctor, the doctor, the wife of the first man, the first man who went blind, the boy with the squint and others. And even with this, Saramago managed to keep his writing lucid so that the reader can forget that he met no such things. The universality of the issues discussed perhaps warranted this style of writing.

The narrative itself is different. Though I had met a similar kind of narrative in Palace Walk, where the narrator can break off to explain or converse with the reader directly, here it was extended. There were long monologues that philosophises the peoples' actions and distill what could be possibly learnt from it; there were places where the narrator becomes part of the struggle, using the first person plural 'we'; there were places where the narrator becomes omniscient. Generally, but not always, the omniscient narrator was used to tell the story (plot-wise) and the first person plural to 'discuss' the philosophies. Putting these styles together it was as if the narrator was holding the readers hand to navigate a complex architectural achievement and explaining to him or her how each facet works and how it is linked to the others.

Blindness is an excellent book. It is a book about relationship as it pertains to governance and power; about how we make decisions and how our decisions affect us; about the need for order and organisation. It is a book that those who have not as yet read should read.


  1. This is one of two books I have by this writer the other being Cain.

  2. Wonderful. I have never read Saramago, nothing at all. A serious error, to be patched up soon.

    1. I never would have thought that of you. But I know once you pick one of his books, you'll do a complete literary justice to it.

  3. saramago is a wonderful writer isn't he I loved this he is adventurous in his style ,all the best stu

    1. I love his boldness. I love people who don't keep to templates, they offer more.

    2. Have you read Seeing, the loose sequel?

    3. No Miguel. I haven't. Didn't even know there is such a 'loose' sequel.


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