Earlier this week I finished reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness. I became interested in this novel after reading a post about it at Of Books and Bicycles. Set in an unamed vaguely European country, the novel follows a set of characters stricken by a mysterious “white blindness,” which seems to be some kind of contagious affliction, spread it seems simply by contact. The main characters, those initially stricken by the blindness, are quarantined by their Government in a former mental hospital. Under armed guard, and restricted to the hospital’s main compound, the internees’ lives quickly devolve into a nighmarish hell, particularly after a criminal element begins to horde food, become violent, and resort to rape. Eventually, the rest of the country submits to the blindness; the remaining internees escape to the outside world, only to discover their society and country have resorted to a state of survival, barely coping with their affliction.
One of the curious aspects of this novel is its style, which Dorothy of Of Books and Bicycles also finds interesting. The language itself (translated from Portugese) is very lyrical, but the setences and paragraphs are loosely punctuated, frequently using run-ons (commas and periods are the only marks of punctuation used), and no paragraph breaks for dialogue. I wonder if the style is meant to simulate Portugese syntax, because from what I’ve read, it’s a style common to Saramago’s English translations.
Once you get used to the style — it actually flows fairly well — the story and its themes hold you until the end. Blindness, of course, is a constant theme in Western literature. I’ve been thinking about blindness and sight lately after reading Oedipus Rex and King Lear, and now Saramago. Blindness in Oedipus Rex tends to become a way to at once hide from sin and repent of it. In Lear loss of sight seems to lure one toward the abyss, into nothingness. Often in Blindness, this is where Saramago takes us: “…blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone.” But unlike other works, the blindness in Saramago’s novel doesn’t fully promote change in the characters, or the human condition. Some of the characters in the novel learn to love, and cooperate, others resort to criminality and violence, particularly when interned, as they might even if they weren’t blind. The blindness doesn’t seem to be transformative or redemptive, rather it places characters in an extension of Sartre’s hell, found in Sartre’s drama No Exit. Sartre’s statement in that play is “Hell is — other people.” And Saramago seems to extend this idea in his novel, although, since not all of the blind succumb to their dark sides, perhaps Saramago isn’t fully pessimistic. Perhaps he’s suggesting “Hell may be other people.”
Saramago also seems to be working within the tradition of the dystopian novel, a la Orwell. The Government is blind to the plight of the internees. They become indifferent to them, often shooting and killing them when the soldiers guarding them begin to fear the blindness. They are dictatorial, controlling food, limiting healthcare to the point that it’s almost nil, and yet leave the internees to their own devices.