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Blindness by José Saramago

2006 Blog Book Club selection for January.

Who is speaking, asked the doctor, A blind man, replied a voice, just a blind man, for that is all we have here.

I enjoyed reading Blindness and have high hopes for the future of this book club! Since our deadline is the end of the month, this post is very premature, but I was too excited to hold off reading the book and want to get my thoughts down while they're still fresh. A warning to my regular readers: this entry is a lot longer than my usual posts. And a warning to other book clubbers who have not already read the book: you may not want to continue, lest I spoil any surprises for you. Onward to the novel.

The unique style of the book, as one commenter on Amazon mentioned, imitates the feeling of being blind. In other words, the format of Blindness artfully embodies the themes of the story. The dialogue that jumps from speaker to speaker, without quotation marks, intentionally creates in the reader the same confusion that the blind might experience. I also liked the touch of not using any chapter headings, which amplifies the stark design.

The quarantine in Blindness reminded me of The Plague, by Albert Camus, except that in the latter book, quarantine is imposed and maintained from the inside whereas here it is controlled from outside. In Camus' novel, bleak though it may be, the plague victims are at least still regarded as fellow humans to be saved, rather than as monsters to be contained and destroyed, beyond salvation. In fact, the attempted (and ultimately, failed) method of containment in Blindness brings up another comparison that is near and dear to my heart: classic Zombie movies! (I know, whatever lit cred I established up until now just went out the window--bear with me.)

The "white blindness" begins like a classic zombie outbreak, with the initial cause of infection sudden and unknown, and is even more dreaded because the method of transmission is mysterious as well. The victims cease to be seen as humans, as evidenced by the terror of soldiers keeping them in quarantine, and the prevailing military opinion that they might be better off dead. The blind are slow, clumsy and weak, but the soldiers' fear is not of physical attack but of pestilence/contagion--the horror of becoming ONE OF THEM. With zombies, being killed outright can be seen as preferable to being bitten and reanimated. In Blindness the same outlook is evidenced by the officer who shot himself upon going blind, preferring suicide to a life without sight.

And yet the characters in Blindness are still human and pitifully aware of how far they have fallen. Saramago advances the scope of disaster with masterful pacing, moving from one conflict to another, until the disease has spread throughout the city and it seems that things could not get any worse.

I sensed a mood shift about halfway through the book when the original group escapes into the larger world. Until then, they had been battling for basic survival while coming to terms with the illness and their situation in quarantine. They were cast out of the world and left to their own devices in the hospital, so all their problems were confined and amplified. Suddenly, we realize that everyone is living under the same conditions and the dilemma is on a much larger scale.

The book is very philosophical throughout, but after a certain point the physical action becomes secondary to the basic questions that the survivors are left to deal with. It is here where the book quite clearly displays a connection to The Plague, zombie movies and of course lots of other fiction: the situation used as allegory of the human condition. Blindness deals with concepts of what it means to be human, and the struggle to retain humanity and dignity in dehumanizing conditions. Of course, the central issue is the plague of blindness itself.

One commenter says that, absurd as it may sound, the white blindness is an allegory for being unable to see. Saramago mentions that the disease is not caused by damage to the eyes, and one victim theorizes that the problem must be located in the brain. I can't find the quote now (they're just about impossible to find in this book!) but one of the characters says something to the effect of, Now that we're blind, we can see things as they really are.

He realizes that all of humanity has been struck with blindness from the beginning, and by the end of the book, some of the characters (esp. the girl with the dark glasses and the man with the eyepatch) are able to surmount this mental blindness and find a sort of redemption. Even with no hope for a cure, they find peace and a new beginning. And since I could go on forever, that's as good a place as any for me to stop. Let the discussion begin!



CM said...

Seems like most people didn't love this one. Great review, and interesting comparison to zombies -- like in zombie movies, I couldn't help picturing the pile of dead bodies after the happy ending.

sui generis said...

Exactly, the cleanup would be a gruesome sight... especially considering that for most of the survivors, the carnage would likely be the first thing they'd see.

Amber said...

I thought the passage about the carnage in the grocery store was especially effective. It reminded me of some bits from The Stand.

Narkoleptik said...

One of my favourite books ever...:)

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