Blindness by José Saramago [Portugal]Blindness by José Saramago
Translator: Giovanni Pontiero
Published by A Harvest Book - Harcourt Inc on January 14th, 1994
Genres: Literary Fiction
Pages: 334
Format: Paperback
Source: Purchase

A city is hit by an epidemic of "white blindness" that spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and assaulting women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides her charges—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and their procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. As Blindness reclaims the age-old story of a plague, it evokes the vivid and trembling horrors of the twentieth century, leaving readers with a powerful vision of the human spirit that's bound both by weakness and exhilarating strength.

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This is the fourth stop of the Science-Fiction & Fantasy World Tour: first was the worrying Porteur d’âme, followed by the sad Mockingbird, then the depressing Solaris, and now I lack words to properly qualify Blindness, by the portuguese Nobel Prize author José Saramago. “Utterly devastating” doesn’t even start to describe it. “The book I shouldn’t have brought for the holidays” could however fit somewhere in the picture. But don’t get me wrong: Blindness is definitely a masterpiece. And no, there’s no contradiction here!

In Blindness, you witness the complete breakdown of humanity as a blindness epidemic spreads through an unnamed city (and probably the world). You watch, powerless and mortified, the first group of “diseased” people being packed without any help of any kind into a squalid abandoned asylum. Not enough food and no medical help at all are provided. Soldiers shoot on sight anyone coming close to the outside gate, lest they escape or riot. As more and more internees are brought into the makeshift quarantine facility, people rapidly regress to primitive behaviours. They step on each other to get more food; survival of the fittest prevails, moral and dignity disappear…
In the process, Blindness casts light on humankind’s fragility. Remove our sight and we can’t even keep ourselves clean, let alone feed ourselves. We look lame and ridiculous. This realization, as much as the compassion for the internees, gets often really painful in the book.

In different circumstances, this grotesque spectacle would have caused the most restrained spectator to burst into howls of laughter, it was too funny for words, some of the blind internees advancing on all fours, their faces practically touching the ground as if they were pigs, one arm outstretched in mid-air…

To make things even “worse”, José Saramago manages to bring the reader amongst the blind by means of his writing style. The text is very dense, with little punctuation and line breaks, making every page look similar: blocky, dense, and somewhat suffocating, like a wall in front of you. Dialogs are not punctuated either, making it sometimes difficult to understand who is talking. Finally, people, as well as the place where the story is taking place, have no names: they are designated by easy to remember traits such as “the first blind”, “the doctor”, “the man with an eyepatch”… All this contributes to make you feel you are also impaired, unable to properly visualize places and people, or even follow conversations properly. Just like the victims of the epidemic, you get confused and anxious.

As the plot unfolds, I was often horrified, disgusted, and shocked. Yet, the story is only too realistic, which left me heartbroken. People behave in a way that is entirely believable, even though they are very wicked at times. They become cowards, thieves, beasts, and while you wonder how the simultaneous loss of only one of our senses could make us so helpless and pathetic, José Saramago shows the process in precise and logical steps.

So indeed, reading Blindness was painful. I wouldn’t recommend it to you if you’re feeling down, and you should be warned that the book is at times very disturbing. But since it is also beautifully written and gives a lot to think about, it is a very rewarding read. It’s not a book that you will forget.

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Next stop is Japan, on the 22nd of September!