Jose Saramago is another of the Nobel Prize for Literature winners of whom I was blissfully unaware until I heard about Blindness, the novel that won him that prize. But now I can easily understand why this Portuguese writer was chosen for the award.
Much of Blindness, set in an unnamed major city of an unnamed country, has somewhat of a fairy tale feel to it. That feel comes from the way that government officials and the military react when faced with a sudden epidemic of "white blindness" that swiftly strikes the city. Although the government acts quickly to quarantine all of those who are struck by this sudden blindness, it soon becomes apparent to both the epidemic's victims and those who are trying to control its spread that it is only a matter of time before everyone in the city, if not the country, will be struck blind.
The reader experiences the horror of the disease and the quarantine of its earliest victims by becoming an intimate member of the first group to be blinded, an ophthalmologist, his wife, and several of the patients treated by the doctor the day that the epidemic began. The doctor's wife, for reasons which are never understood or explained, seems to be the only person in the city who does not ultimately lose her sight, and this is the advantage that allows her and her small group of six others to survive the horrors of quarantine. When the military personnel in charge of the quarantine facility decide to do little more than provide a little food on a sporadic basis and to make sure that no one escapes its walls, forcing the inmates to do whatever is necessary for their survival, Saramago reminds us that civilized society is a very fragile thing. The meek do not inherit the asylum.
The theme of Blindness, of course, is not one that is unique to this book or its author. The breakdown of society is a common theme in the various genres of literature and, unfortunately, also in the real world. I was immediately struck by how much Blindness reminded me of the 1955 MacKinlay Kantor novel, Andersonville, for instance. That one is based on the true story of what went on at the Andersonville, Georgia, Civil War prison that "housed" captured Union soldiers for several years. Just as happened at the quarantine facility in Saramago's book, a group of Andersonville thugs, many of who had been common criminals earlier in their lives, were allowed to dominate and mistreat the more civilized among them until one or two brave inmates decided that something had to be done. And who of us can easily forget the horrors we heard about in New Orleans, exaggerated though they may have been, during the early aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?
But Blindness is not a novel of despair. Rather, it offers hope that no matter the circumstances, the best of us will prevail, dignity will be maintained, and the human spirit will shine through.
Finally, I should mention the style in which this one is written. Don't pick it up expecting it to be an easy or quick read because there is very little punctuation and very few paragraphs per chapter. Because the author uses so little punctuation, the reader is not always sure exactly who is speaking, especially at the beginning of the book. As a reader, I felt much like the characters of the book must have felt when they were first thrown together in the chaos of blindness. But, like those characters, I began to recognize speech patterns and personalities that soon allowed me to make sense of the world in which I found myself. Blindness required a little extra from me as a reader, and that is part of its charm, part of what makes the book so unforgettable.
And thanks to John Mutford for turning me on to this book and not allowing me to miss the experience.
Rated at: 4.0