Friday, May 04, 2007

Blindness

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

12 comments:

  1. That's funny that we both reviewed this on the same day. I think the reason we ended up with the same rating even though I sounded more negative was because I was hoping to be giving it something closer to a 5. I was hoping it would become one of my all-time favorites.

    I'm not sure if I'll be reading Seeing or not. I haven't heard as much good about that one.

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  2. I see what you mean, Matt. In my case, it actually rated higher than I expected it to rate coming in to it. I only give a book a 5.0 if I would ever consider reading it a second or third time and I don't think I'll be doing that with Blindness.

    From what I hear about Seeing, it is definitely not as strong as this one and I'll really have to be in the mood for that kind of thing before I pick it up. I feel compelled to read something pretty light at this point. :-)

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  3. Sam, Love the review!

    Like you, I found myself thinking of other books as I read it as well. Lord of the Flies came to mind for me. I guess the whole segregation of a small group that somehow comes to represent the society at large is not an uncommon plot.

    I also thought that the lack of punctuation mirrored what it could have felt like being in such a situation. Oddly, I've heard that Saramago doesn't use punctuation in any of his books. Whereas I think it fits Blindness, I wonder how I'd feel about in another book. I plan on picking up Seeing at some point, but I liked Blindness so much that I'm nervous about a poor sequel ruining the original (a la The Matrix).

    Interesting noting your justification for giving it a 4 rather than a 5. Based on your scale, I would have given it a 5. It's not often that I plan on rereading a book, but I will do that with this one.

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  4. I do wonder, John, how I would react to Saramago's style in other of his books. I felt that the style suited Blindness absolutely perfectly but I don't think that it would work nearly as well in other books.

    When I read a book, I "need" to have clean break points where I can put them down for a while without finding it difficult to begin again later with the whole thing intact in my mind. I found that this one required extra concentration and really welcomed the chapter breaks when they finally came along after I had frantically read through a dozen or so pages that may have included only four or five paragraphs in the lot. But that feeling was part of the book's mood and I thought that I understood what the author was shooting for with that pace...now, I wonder if it was more accidental on his point rather than intentional, considering that all his books are written in that style.

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  5. I think maybe our rating scales are a bit difference because it's not very often I reread a book, even if I loved it. And if I do reread it's after many years when I don't really remember the book anymore. So I can give a book a 5 even if I don't plan on reading it again. I'm not sure if that means I'm more generous in my scoring or what.

    I also "need" clean break points like you. I had to stop reading Blindness at paragraph breaks just because it was sometimes impossible to keep reading to the chapter end. I normally don't stop between paragraphs but his style required me to do so.

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  6. It was definitely on the "difficult" side of the scale for me, Matt, and that was mainly because I couldn't let my concentration stray for even an instant...and the long, largely unpunctuated paragraphs became a real test because I couldn't find a spot to take a breather when I needed it.

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  7. I want to read this book this year. It is one of those books, though, that sounds so heavy, I just haven't yet brought myself to do so. However I am feeling like the last person in the blogosphere who has not yet read it!

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  8. It's definitely a "heavy" book, Danielle. The brutality that soon surfaces and the overall helplessness of the people is disconcerting, but it's worth the effort. I'm glad I read the book but I'm not yet ready for another one like it...between it and The Road, I've had enough for now.

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  9. Glad you liked the book. I still think about it even though I read it something like five years ago. Be sure you read Seeing soon. It's a companion book and some of the same characters appear in it as in Blindness.

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  10. It seems like a difficult read; I'm a bit suprised nobody has mentioned 'Day of the Triffids' when talking about blindness in novels. That was really scarey when I read it as a kid.

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  11. I think it will be with me for a long time, Stefanie. I've heard a few negative comments about Seeing that have made me a little hesitant to read that one yet. It sounds like one of those political novels that I have to be in the right mood for or it probably wouldn't work for me.

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  12. Nick, you're exposing another hole in my reading history. I know the title of that one but I've never read it. Wasn't it also made into a movie?

    I know nothing about the plot, but I may take a look at it now that you've mentioned it in context with Blindness.

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