Review: Blindness by José Saramago
by Aengus Murray
Jose Saramago was an extraordinary writer who considered himself entirely ordinary. In his Paris Review interview he described what he does as follows:
“I arrange words one after another, or one in front of another, to tell a story, to say something that I consider important or useful, or at least important or useful to me. It is nothing more than this.”
Despite this modesty, his impact on global literature cannot be overestimated. Born into a modest rural Portuguese family, he published his first novel at 24 before vanishing from the literary landscape for almost twenty years. It was only in his fifties that he re-emerged and his writing career really took off, culminating in his winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1998. We can only assume that he spent most of the intervening period in quiet and concentrated observation of humankind and all its shortcomings as a species, something which allowed him to publish a series of novels – Blindness included – of singular brilliance, just as he was approaching old age.
Many writers today are celebrated for their mastery of interiority, feted for their ability to lay bare on the page the innermost workings of the human mind. Saramago, conversely, might be considered the supreme master of exteriority, looking down upon humanity from a quasi-divine perch and shining an often-scathing light upon who we are and how we behave. In Blindness, as in his other novels, the answers given to these questions are not exactly positive and life-affirming, as the very fabric of western society is carefully deconstructed in compelling, wryly humorous prose.
In Blindness, as in his other novels, the answers given to these questions are not exactly positive and life-affirming, as the very fabric of western society is carefully deconstructed in compelling, wryly humorous prose. The premise of the novel is simple, yet ingenious; a pandemic of blindness descends upon an unnamed city, and we follow a small troupe of characters as they try to survive while society
unravels around them. It all starts with a man going blind while sitting in his car at a set of traffic lights. No explanation is ever offered and none required. The man who helps this man get home soon goes blind too and it quickly becomes apparent that a plague of blindness is rapidly spreading through the city. There is some obvious metaphor at play here, but it is never heavy-handed and Saramago’s almost unique ability to explore things from every possible angle makes for a captivating – if occasionally challenging – read.
It is not long before we see the fabric of society break down, as the government sends those already infected to an abandoned psychiatric hospital before abandoning them altogether, while those within the hospital soon surrender to their most savage, inhuman urges. It is hard not to draw a comparison between this section of the book and accounts of similar real-world horrors, most obviously Nazi concentration camps. Our witness to the events of the novel is known simply as the doctor’s wife, a woman who feigns blindness in order to accompany her newly-blind husband when he is taken to the psychiatric hospital, and it is through her that Saramago shows us all the unpleasantness bubbling away below the fragile surface of modern life.
A lot of the characters in the book are almost incidental, serving to illustrate what is happening on a societal level. That is not to dismiss them as mere ciphers, however; they are quintessential everymen, everywomen, everychildren, representative of people within the structure of society and it is through them that we are given a glimpse of hope for humanity, despite the darkness and depravity on display. These characters are they, but they are also you and he and she. You know them all, even if you’ve never met them: the aforementioned doctor’s wife, the doctor himself, the girl with the dark glasses, the thief, the boy with the squint, the first blind man. We are offered no names, only distinguishing features and hints at personality as we are shown humanity in all its fallible, pitiable glory.
In his book, The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber wrote that ‘the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently,’ and this seems to be the message Saramago is keen to deliver too. He is not a wholehearted miserabilist in the Beckettian tradition, though his work does share some similarities with that of his fellow Nobel Prize winner, notably in the darkness of the humour and the unflinching look at humankind at its most unglamorous.
Blindness starts with panic, descends into desperation and iniquity but ends on a more positive note, perhaps not quite restoring one’s faith in humanity, but at the very least allowing one to retain some modicum of hope. As the world slowly emerges from a quite real pandemic, you could do much worse than picking up this strange, thought-provoking masterpiece about an imagined pandemic.