How are you going to imagine a world, and to live in it, in which some central part of our meaning system suddenly disappears? You can play with the idea in thinking about having survived an atomic war which destroyed most humans, and all the basic infrastructures of everyday life. The problems one runs into even in such a game of imagination is to be consistent and being able to step far enough away to see what it is that really changes.
In Blindness, Jose Saramago presents you with exactly such a problem, yet his masterful analysis deals not only with the physical aspects of change and how his characters deal with them, but he inters into the psychological realm and astounds you with his insights and brilliance.
Blindness is my introduction Jose Saramago, though I have already seen the film version of the novel twice, which I enjoyed. Here, Saramago explores an interesting premise: what if suddenly a society were to become spontaneously and absurdly sightless? How would people respond to each other? What would happen to the structure of the society? Would the powerful and those with weapons suddenly rule? Would the jungle of Thomas Hobbes, in which life is brutish, nasty and short, ultimately prevail?
Just what is this odd book about? Is it an allegory? If so, an allegory of what? Of the dependency of humans on basic systems of order in the manner of Thomas Hobbes? Is it a condemnation of humans as being only on the edge of civilization and being shown to be ready to plunge into barbarism at the least shaking of central systems of order? Or on a more positive note, is the tiny group of seven the hopeful core that even in such catastrophic circumstances would maintain humanity and re-create a safer environment? Were this latter the case then the critic has a difficult time explaining the presence of the one sighted person who survives and leads. Or does this problem suggest that leaders are essential to the continuation of the human species?
If it’s an allegory, its beauty is its stark truth and its reality. I was reminded of the plight of concentration camp prisoners and the people quarantined in The Plague by Albert Camus. I sensed the influence of the existentialists here in works like No Exit by Sartre and the absurdity of Kafka also at play. The blind writer and the blindfolded religious icons intrigued me. I personally don’t see such involuntary blindness as total but rather as blind spots. However, the premise of blindness, partial or absolute, diminishes the malevolence of the human condition.
Or, abandoning the allegory theory, is this simply an astonishing tour-de-force of imagination, being just what it is literally and no more, the investigation of the logic of life when something such as sight disappears and the sighted woman is necessary as a sop since no other believable mode of survival would be easily available. Seen like this, Blindness seems to be a passionate experiment with alternative realities and attending with care to the logic of the system Saramago sets up.
There’s something, though, something in the novel I originally had apprehensions about. It’s the writing style. Saramago uses only commas and periods to punctuate his sentences. That means no hyphens, no semicolons – and no quotation marks, either. Speech runs on in a sprawling mess, How does that work, By separating each statement with a comma and a capital, Oh I see, It takes a while to get used to. I initially thought it was clever; none of the characters are named, either, merely referred to by their position: the first man, the doctor’s wife, the man with the black eye-patch, and so on – and the combination of the two is intensely claustrophobic. You never quite feel you can see what’s going on, you feel that your viewpoint is constrained – in fact, you feel partially blind. I was somewhat disappointed when friends had told me that you’d find exactly the same style in Saramago’s other novels. It seems that he’s up to something here, that perhaps he’s experimenting in timbre and rhythm and pace, and feels that punctuation gets in the way.
Perhaps this stylistic maneuvering is a great metaphor for the subject matter. Reading, you are disoriented by the lack of accustomed punctuation, among other things. You have to pause sometimes to get your bearings. “Who said that?” you ask yourself. It’’ exactly apropos to the way the blind characters react in the novel. Saramago wants you disoriented so that the empathy you feel for his characters becomes more pronounced. You share an awareness of what you are experiencing first-hand. You too have to grope our way in the dark, without the usual guideposts. The characters go unnamed. As one of the characters thinks to himself, “names are of no importance here.” You know them only as “the first blind man” or the “girl with dark glasses” or “the doctor’s wife,” through their voices. Perhaps these characters operate as universal types in large part because they are nameless.
That aside, the novel is very good, both as a novel and as, well, speculative fiction. The breakdown of order, the process of the progression of the blindness – the inevitability of it – is the main thrust of the novel, with the characters doing what they must to survive. In places, the novel is bleak, and brutal; in places, as you might expect from a novel employing a metaphor of such grand power and conception, it is genuinely enlightening. It is never boring, though, even when Saramago is describing the minutiae of life in one of the blind camps, and even when you’re struggling through a particularly dense page of exposition and authorial asides directed squarely at you.
Ultimately, not only the realism and the skill with which the characters were drawn but the writer’s optimism and redemption made this book really work for me.