Friday, December 28, 2012

Blindness. by Jose Saramago

A remarkable book in several ways.

One by one, the citizens of an unknown country (or perhaps the world) are struck blind, with a "white blindness". The first to go blind is at a stoplight when it happens. A stranger takes him home in his car, where he waits for his wife. The following day he goes to see an opthamologist, who can find nothing physically wrong with his eyes. He calls a fellow eye doctor to consult, and promises to do further tests.

But the tests never take place. The doctor is struck blind. One by one, the persons in the waiting room go blind. The doctor notifies the board of health of what appears to be a kind of epidemic, and the government takes swift action. Those who are blind are rounded up, as well as those who have been exposed to the blind, and brought to a former mental hospital, quarantined. The two groups are separated, but whenever one of the exposed persons goes blind he or she is sent over to the blind wards.

All does not go well. Soldiers guard the hospital and threaten to shoot anyone who gets too close. They bring food three times a day, but refuse to provide any medical assistance for those who may need it. The hospital quickly descends to a kind of chaos, with only one person able to see it: the doctor's wife, who joined him in the van, saying she had just then gone blind. For some reason, she retains her sight, but does not tell others, except her husband, at first.

More people are dropped off at the hospital, the soldiers become more fearful, violence breaks out. Conditions are terrible and food deliveries sporadic. Worse, one of the wards gets hold of a gun and makes demands of the other wards in exchange for the little food that does come.

Eventually a small gang leaves the hospital, led by the doctor's wife. They encounter a sea of blindness everywhere. Nothing is working, everyone is blind. The country has completely fallen apart.

How the group manages is a gripping part of this story. In that sense I was on pins and needles.

Yet this is in no way a suspense story. It isn't even written in a normal way. The author writes run-on sentences, with little punctuation beyond commas. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who is speaking. Yet after a while this style seemed to fit the subject. The persons in the book are never identified by name. More than once they point out that names are not necessary for the blind (I never quite understood this). They are identified by certain attributes: "the doctor's wife", "the girl with the dark glasses", "the boy with the squint", and so on. If this book had been written in a standard way, I can imagine it would have been tedious and not as effective.

It's an allegory, which is why I did not fret too much at the obvious questions: why no medical supplies, why quarantine, why this or that. It isn't meant to be super-realistic (although references to bodily functions lend it gritty realism that is inescapable). These could be any people anywhere. Suddenly blind. In this story we see the best and the worst in human nature.

Interestingly, the author followed up with a book called "Seeing", that begins, at least, with the same core characters. hmmmm.... 

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