Imagine the whole world suddenly turned blind.
What would unfold out of this communal trauma? Robbed of just one sense, what else would we lose: our dignity, our humanity, even our existence?
This is the extraordinary line of questioning that Nobel-winning Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago posed when he wrote his short novel Blindness in 1995. The version I read came from Vintage Classics, in a 2005 translation by Giovanni Pontiero.
And here’s why I’d urge you to read it too.
‘A world full of blind people, it doesn’t bear thinking about.’
The premise of this novel is as simple as it proves profound.
Some kind of unexplained epidemic of blindness spreads through a population; a blindness that turns the sufferers’ vision white in an instant. Coined ‘the white evil’, it is indiscriminatory, catching people by surprise in everyday moments – waiting for the traffic lights to change, reading a book or fossilising the flash of an intense orgasm.
As the story unfolds, we discover how the author supposes a population would respond to such an unfathomable crisis.
The blind are quickly separated from the seeing and placed into quarantine. Promises are kept and are not kept. Authority is voiced, proven ineffective, stolen and dismissed. The story unravels faster than we can hold it, describing the drastic deterioration of this supposedly civilised society in a matter-of-fact yet unguarded manner.
Within the chaos there is a vital plot twist that acts as a lifeline to the world that preceded it. This element holds us in a constant state of suspense, looking over a precipice beyond which there is only the white evil and, seemingly, very little hope. Yet it is this anchor that carries us through the novel, hoping that the hope and empathy it instils will not be proven naive.
‘Like a light going out; more like a light going on’
In the author’s imagination, we find an astute logic that cracks open what we might consider our organised and civilised life.
Saramago explores a range of themes, from the everyday to the overarching and none are less pertinent than any other. He supposes what would happen to simple needs such as hygiene, sanitation and the supply of food, thus pulling the rug from our everyday lives.
Yet he also brings us to face the grander and more personal issues that define our humanity, such as what becomes of our sense of personal privacy and how would such a crisis could distort the very nature of love.
And all the while, there is this nagging question: why do these blind persons see an impenetrable milky white landscape, not the black emptiness many of us may assume is the experience of the blind in real life? Here, the author does not tell us why, but leaves us plenty of space to suppose how this is part of the novel’s allegorical value.
‘Perhaps, right there before her, invisible, a dragon was waiting for her with its mouth open.’
Fear is undoubtedly the overriding emotion in this novel.
The fear of the general population at the prospect of becoming blind at any moment; the self-interested fear of the authorities that they will be seen to have dealt with the crisis poorly; the fear of those who are blind as they learn to live in a world without eyes.
It dictates each one’s actions and informs the self-defeating behaviours that exaggerates much of the suffering. It also creates opportunities for some to manipulate the situation to their advantage, which emerged for me as one of the least shocking outcomes. This, in itself, is a sobering conclusion to draw as a reader.
And, as the reader, the logic through which the shocking deterioration and narrative’s harrowing extremes is perhaps what creates the fear and tension most of all. While far-fetched at first glance, this novel reveals shortcomings in our selves and our assumptions about a civilised society that are hard to argue with.
Should this fiction become fact, this novel could prove to be truly prescient.
‘If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.’
Prefaced with this quote of the Book of Exhortations, this is a novel that unearths notions of blindness through a seemingly far-fetched story. Yet, by the end, the author has asked us to question which blindness it is we have been speaking of and whether it is a blindness beyond the eyes that he is really provoking us to question.
The language is rich, detailed and yet there is also a sense of observing from a distance throughout the novel. In this style, unemotional philosophical observations are woven amid the frank descriptions and dialogues that retain a clarity that counters the high emotion of the situation.
This approach creates a place for us, as the reader, in a role of witness rather than participant. We are held asking the larger questions while overseeing the detail that keeps the story’s momentum rolling.
And it is not one person’s perspective we get but many, delving into the thoughts and feelings of a range of characters as if we were a God-like presence that’s able to access all person’s innermost selves at will. This keeps us from engaging in just one person’s blindness, delivering a fantastically balanced perspective on the scenario.
Why read Blindness by Jose Saramago?
This is a book for when you wish for more than just a gripping story.
From such a simple concept, great complexities of emerge. I found this a novel that provoked a frequent state of reflection and a need to slow down my reading and take stock of the profound detail contained on every page. This is a book that I could return to repeatedly and discover new wisdom rising to the surface with each pass.
Unafraid to take us to difficult places and walk us through those experiences in unguarded detail, this book succeeds in not plunging us into a lethargic despair. Remarkably, the author keeps the narrative feeling light, engaging and interesting, despite the extremes of the action he depicts. This novel poses important questions about our own blindness and does so in admirably understated and non-accusatory ways.
But how to describe the underlying value of this book? It is hard to better Amanda Hopkinson’s observation of the author’s gifts in her review in The Independent:
“Saramago is a past master at creating societies so suddenly traumatised they have to discover again what living together can mean.”