José Saramago’s Blindness

Before his death in 2010, at the age of 87, the Portuguese novelist José Saramago was one of the world’s most decorated writers, winner of both the Nobel Prize and the prestigious America Award. His books have sold millions of copies and been translated into every major world language, giving his work a rare international reach. I picked up Blindness on the basis of this reputation, having never previously encountered his work, but my small risk was amply rewarded in the reading. Blindness is a dystopian work, something of a cross between Golding’s Lord Of The Flies and Camus’ The Plague, in which an epidemic of blindness washes over an entire city, slowly at first, beginning with only a handful of unfortunate souls, but inexorably spreading, until all but one person are stricken.

From the opening paragraph, we are alerted to a peculiar stylistic choice, as three short sentences create a staccato rhythm that soon gives way to a breathless length: sentences go on long past their called-for punctuation, and paragraphs take up pages, crowding out the blank spaces. There are periods and commas, but no semi-colons or quotation marks, which has a disorienting effect on the reader: we do not always immediately know who is speaking, or to whom. Our difficulties are compounded by the fact that not a single character in this entire novel is given a name; rather, they are described by their professions (‘the doctor”), or their relationship to other characters (“the doctor’s wife), or some distinguishing physical characteristic (“the man with the eye-patch”). After all, what use are names in a sightless world?

In Saramago’s unnamed city, the first group to be struck blind are quarantined by the government in a repurposed psychiatric hospital, where they are given semi-regular food provisions but otherwise left to fend for themselves: no medicine, no law enforcement, and no guidance inside their unfamiliar surroundings. Absent the leviathan of law and government, something like a Hobbesian anarchy rapidly takes shape, as one group of (mostly male) quarantined, who manage to get their hands on a gun, barricade themselves between the food delivery location and the rest of the blind, and use their food monopoly to extort their fellow men and women. At first, their greed is for material wealth (jewelry, watches, petty cash – all completely useless to them, in their present state, except as a means to satisfy their avarice), but their lust quickly turns on the female quarantined, who are forced to trade sexual favours for food. The government forces, tasked with preventing escapes and provisioning the quarantined, are little better: they hold almost daily quarrels over whether or not to simply exterminate the blind, rather than risk the spread of their infection. Suffice it to say, Saramago has a grim vision of human nature.

And yet, and yet – one person, alone among all the characters of the book, retains her sight, for reasons that are never made clear. And rather than use her obvious physical advantage for personal gain, she takes it upon herself to help the others, to guide them, to feed them and clothe them. In the land of the blind, this woman could live like a king; instead, she shoulders the burden of her group’s well-being, choosing to lead rather than rule. Sight, Saramago seems to be saying, also gives us the capacity for pity, and pity is a wonderful check on our cruelty. Consider this vignette of the city of the blind during a rain fall, one of the few opportunities its citizens have to quench their horrible thirst:

Eyes are also needed to see this picture, a woman laden with plastic bags, going along a rain-drenched street, amidst rotting litter and human and animal excrement, cars and trucks abandoned any old way, blocking the main thoroughfare, some of the vehicles with their tyres already surrounded by grass, and the blind, the blind, open-mouthed and staring up at the white sky, it seems incredible that rain should fall from such a sky.

Sight, in Saramago’s vision, entails responsibility. He opens the book with a quotation from the Book of Exhortations: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.” What, fundamentally, is the difference between seeing, looking and observing? Between “seeing” and “observing” lies some choice, some human agency, and it is exactly there, in that liminal space, that Saramago finds some possibility for our redemption.