Thursday, 25 July 2013

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

This book has been on my TR list for a while- and after two separate recommendations at the Book Club that I go to, I ordered it there and then, sat in the lounge at Broadway Cinema. So glad I did, easily one of the best books I have read in recent years- powerful, some might say far fetched, but I would say absolutely believable, well characterised whilst remaining quite mysterious too. It's a well plotted and very poetically written novel that looks at how humanity reacts to adversity, disaster, incarceration, injustice and how valuable companionship and resilience is in difficult times.

Blindness is set in an unnamed but sunny and densely populated city, presumably some time in the 1990s. One day, whilst sitting in his car at a red light, a man goes blind. A good Samaritan escorts him home, stealing his car on an impulse. The thief goes blind, standing at the side of the road beside his stolen car. The doctor that examines the first man can find no reason for his sudden blindness and during his research that evening, the Doctor goes blind. As do all the patients that he has seen that day. And the policeman who attended to the car thief. Blindness is spreading, eye to eye, like a contagion- however inexplicable that may be. The story is told by an all-seeing narrator, seeing enough for the whole city, and told mostly from the perspective of the Doctor's wife. She has miraculously retained her sight, but must hide it or become a slave to the hordes of blind people.

Firstly, a comment on the style.  Though I found it to be effective, it's not a writing style that is going to win over the unconvinced or the fussy. Saramago takes a very McCarthy-ist approach to punctuation and to dialogue signposts. If you're a fan of the conventional "Bla bla bla," Said character X, I'd advise against this novel. Saramago has, I think, made a deliberate attempt to anonymise the characters in this book- it's hard to work out who's talking and to whom (as it would be if both parties were blind). None of the characters are named, as the blind point out throughout- what's the point of a name when there's no face to attach to it? I loved the nicknames that the author chose to identify the characters: the Doctor, the Doctor's wife, the first blind man, the thief, the girl with dark glasses, the old man with the eye patch, the boy with the squint, even "the dog of tears" which was a personal favourite of mine. I loved how descriptive the 'names' were and how people can end up being defined by the slightest characteristic or habit. It's surprising what sticks when it's just memory that's working.

What I love the most about Catastrophe/End of the World novels is the collapse of society and the depiction of what emerges out of the collapse. Blindness does an excellent job of showing the sheer panic that inevitably descends on governments, individuals and societies when faced with disaster or danger in the beginning, followed by the absolute abandonment of Human Rights, democracy and any sort of ethical consideration in producing a solution and the social car crash that results. In this book, the initial blind are rounded up and Quarantined in an unused mental hospital, provided with supplies and guarded day and night by the army. As more and more blind arrive in truckloads at the asylum, along with those that have had contact with the blind, power struggles emerge- no space, no food- democracies become dictatorships, deadly conflicts break out and the blind fight amongst themselves for dignity and survival- some of the asylum chapters are absolutely horrific and show the most animalistic side of human nature. But it proves that if a person is treated like an animal, they will become one. The book shows how quickly civilisation and civility can break down when it's pretty evident that nobody is watching. Once the narrative dramatically shifts to the outside world, it's interesting to see how the characters that have been confined react and adapt to a blind world, where they're no longer part of the feared infected but part of the blind mass.

Blindness is such a brilliant book; thought provoking, tragic, funny in places and uplifting in a weird way. Like the narrator points out, all children play at being blind but it is completely impossible to imagine how blind people function independently on a daily basis. It's such a scary way for society to come to an end, to be suddenly blind and having to exist in small herds of strangers, sleeping in shops because you were not at home when you went blind, depending on memory to move around and never being able to locate your loved ones or your now useless belongings. Absolutely brilliant, I'm sure I'll remember it for a long time.

If you've enjoyed catastrophic-rebuilding-civilisation books such as The Day of the Triffids, the Death of Grass or Fugue for a Darkening Island then this is an absolutely brilliant addition to that bunch.

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