This is my second journey into the mind of Jose Saramago. Some years ago I lucked upon a copy of The Double. At that time, I was mesmerized by the unique lilt and canter of Saramago’s writing style and the use the omnipresent narrator with a penchant for philosophising. Saramago could turn a phrase that was at once both simple but held significant depth and complexity. Despite the years between Saramago novels, I immediately recognized the style and fell back into the hypnotic rhythm of his writing. This is sci-fi/fantasy that is first and foremost literary fiction. While some modern writers have shown that literary fiction and fantasy are not mutually exclusive, Saramago was doing this and winning a nobel prize for his effort before some of these writers picked up their first Tolkien novel.
Blindness is spreading. Without discernible cause, people are suddenly unable to see, struck with a blindness that leaves them seeing white instead of the traditional blackness of blindness. The blindness seems to progress like an epidemic and like any plague, quarantine seems to be in order. As the blindness spreads, people are interned in a old mental hospital where they are left to wander alone with occasional provision of food and drink. The story becomes the struggle of these people, The first blind man and his wife, the Doctor, the boy with the squint, woman with dark glasses and the old man with the eye patch as they struggle to survive in a new world and to understand what has happened to them. We are provided an inside look into the results of the blind leading the blind as well as viewing this world through the eyes of the Doctor’s wife who is the only person who appears to be unaffected by the blindness.
The setup of the story is genius. The idea of the depravation of a sense that travels from person to person like a plague struck a chord. My mind was stretched as I tried to imagine 250 plus blind persons attempting to survive without the aid of outside sources. The idea that severe depravation brings out the animal inside was compelling and disturbing to see unfold within the novel.
Saramago does not leave you alone to ponder the meanings of any event in the story. He delves in the philosophy of the human condition, the idea of self governance, organization of power, the role of religion and the fundamental question of whether people are inherently good. If you are looking for action, a fast pace or explosions, you will need to look elsewhere.
The book is quite excellent but difficult to love. The story is essential that of disabled persons left to live in squalor. They are beaten, tormented, abused and raped. They are forced to sustain themselves on essentially nothing while facing the constant threat of death and the smell of death. The novel paints a picture that is more disturbing than I may have every read. We come to understand the fear, pain and dehumanization of the afflicted while were are also forced to see it through the eyes of the one person that could. It is as if you were immortal and being forced to watch your loved ones continually die around you.
There is plenty in this novel that is quite fascinating and excellent. Additionally, there is plenty for different readers to dislike. There are several scenes involving rape that were disturbing and moderately graphic. The events are approached with a objective view and the reader is left wondering if they can justify what is happening. The descriptions of squalor is graphic and there is continual death. There are views of women that some will find sexist and there are some who may take offence to the portrayal of the blind. I would be most interested to discuss this with a blind person.
Overall, this is a compelling parable that is more about perception than it is blindness. It explores how we see and perceive the human condition and how we understand and justify the conditions. The story is multi-layered and could make up a thesis. Suffice to say, it is accessible on multiple levels and a highly recommended read.
It is difficult to find commentary on the sex/violence/language content of book if you are interested. I make an effort to give you the information so you can make an informed decision before reading. *Disclaimer* I do not take note or count the occurrences of adult language as I read. I am simply giving approximations.
Scale 1 – Lowest 5 – Highest
Sex – 3.5
There is some discussion of sex. Most of if is a philosophical take on the subject. That said, there are some graphic scenes that involve rape. They are moderately violent and disturbing. This is a drawback of the novel.
Language – 3
Moderate use of adult language throughout.
Violence – 4
In a world filled with the blind, you might think that violence will decrease. Apparently this is not the case. There is almost consent death throughout. While some are from accident and natural cause, many are from violence. There are dead bodies throughout and theme is pervasive.