Seeing is believing. And if you don’t see the shit you wallow in, maybe you won’t mind it as much. Or at least that is one of the tangential points in Jose Saramago’s Blindness, a powerful journey into darkness that sheds a light on humankind in a moment of weakness.
With a simple narrative and unusual style, Saramago – the 1998 Nobel Laureate for Literature – constantly forces his reader to deliberate a situation that, in the course of the novel, becomes too real to bear in one’s mind: all of a sudden and for some unknown reason everyone goes blind one after the other. What happens next?
It is a tough question. I am not sure Saramago is trying to provide an answer. Surely not in the predictable plot, which is akin to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: First there is calm, surely the situation can be contained and all will be saved, everyone acts rationally; next there are disputes, power struggles, dehumanizing situations; then there is chaos, expect the worst; finally, there is a resolution.
But the plot’s predictability does not detract from the quality of the novel by any means. On the contrary, as events unfold as a reader might expect them to, one begins to wonder if mankind’s reactions are routinely banal, i.e., consistent over time. Violence and occasional heroics follow each other and rise in magnitude over time; dependence emerges naturally; the impulse to quell chaos dies when individuals seek to satisfy personal needs.
Saramago’s economic use of words accentuates the grim conditions of a blind country, the helpless life plagued citizens are forced to lead and the speed with which life can turn from normal to a wild unknown. Suddenly, “I’m blind,” communicates more what than the two words ordinarily connote.
The author’s succinct style is remarkable for its clarity. Conversations are embedded in the narrative and commas are their only indicators – yet somehow the lack of quotation marks does not confuse the reader. Blindness flows seamlessly from beginning to end, horrifying the reader with candid observations of humankind and plunging one into deep thought – and depression.
Despite his usual hostility to religion, Saramago treads traditional symbols into his novel, and in the process creates a prophet – but one who breaks with the expected and, accepting the situation, sticks to a small group of followers.
Blindness is a moving expose on what men will do to each other when backed into a corner. And blindly punching away is just the beginning.