Tuesday, November 25, 2008
weekly book review: blindness, by josé saramago
"Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are."
On an average street in an anonymous city, a man is suddenly struck blind while idling in his car, waiting for a red light to turn green.  It is no ordinary blindness, but rather a "white blindness," causing the victim's world to fall "into a milky sea." Another man - a thief, first thought to be a good Samaritan - helps drive the newly blind man home.  The thief takes advantage of the blind man's condition and makes off with his car.  While driving away, he is himself struck blind.  The blindness soon spreads like wildfire, striking the first man's wife, an opthamologist, and then his patients.  The government soon panics; the first victims are rounded up and sent to live in an abandoned asylum, quarantined until a cure can be found.  But to no avail.  The asylum is soon stuffed to overflowing with the ever increasing blind, and still the strange disease continues to spread unchecked in the outside world. 

Inside the asylum, conditions quickly deteriorate. Food becomes an uncertainty, the lack of running water reduces all to filth, and the guards become frightened and quick to shoot. Eventually, a small group of prisoners force themselves upon the others - holding hostage their food in exchange for valuables, and later, women. In all of this, there remains only one set of seeing eyes - those of the opthamologist's wife, who mysteriously retains her sight while the world loses its, and who is burdened with being the lone witness as society crumbles into vile depravity.  

With Blindness, Saramago makes a powerful statement about the delicate state of humanity, while creating a disturbingly apt parable for our times. Playing with the old adage of the eyes being the window to the soul, Saramago strips society of its eyes, thus plunging it into evil.  And as a parable, Blindness is intentionally vague. Surroundings are described in detail while characters remain unnamed, and the cause of the illness is left unexplained. Thus, the story becomes a limitless allegory - it could be the Holocaust, AIDS, Hurricane Katrina, The Sudan, or any other time when catastrophe has struck, pushing civilization to its breaking point. It isn’t pleasant to think about, but it’s a story that is too often true, and one that we can never learn from if we choose to ignore.

For a variety of reasons I’ve spent this month reading much lighter fare, and although I’ve enjoyed myself, I was itching for something a bit more substantial.  Thus, I was drawn to Saramago.  Although a masterful writer, I’d been reading very underwhelming reviews of his newest novel, so figured it best to start with his masterpiece.  As expected, Blindness absolutely did not disappoint. It’s a darkly brilliant, important book, and although I can’t say reading it was a pleasant experience, it was one I’m glad I had just the same.

José Saramago
1998, 326 pages

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