Confessions of Another Common Reader

José Saramago – Blindness


Jose Saramago - Blindness - jacket imageSaramago’s 1995 novel is a classic “what if..?” story: without any warning or prior symptoms, one by one, the citizens of a vaguely authoritarian state begin to be struck by a “white sickness” as they go about their daily lives, which effectively renders them blind – they see only a luminous whiteness before their eyes. Acting on initial suspicions that the sickness may be contagious, the government reopens an old mental asylum to quarantine the infected and those who have had contact with them, each group in a separate wing of the hospital. But as the fear and chaos grows, and the epidemic spreads, the care afforded to the asylum’s inmates deteriorates rapidly – as do their moral standards.

Saramago is interested in big questions about human nature – how we would behave towards each other if the ordinary checks and balances of society were removed, and nobody could see what we were doing? At a very basic level, standards of hygiene lapse entirely. Saramago’s descriptions of the state of the asylum – as viewed through the eyes of the one sighted inmate, “the doctor’s wife”, who has pretended she has been struck blind in order to accompany her husband to his incarceration – are revolting.

More significantly, Saramago wants to explore attitudes and adherence to (or lack of it) sexual morality, and law and order. As chaos outside the asylum increases, the support systems fail: the electricity switches off, the water cuts out, and the food supply becomes unreliable. A gang of “hoodlums”, in the “third ward on the left” assume control by force, restricting the availability of food still further in exchange for at first the few valuables and useful items the inmates have brought with them, then later for a disturbing ordeal of systematic rape, ward by ward, of the women inmates.

The style won’t be to everyone’s liking – there are no paragraphs, no speech delimiters, and little punctuation, mimicking the blanketing confusion of the blindness and forcing the reader to proceed slowly and cautiously. And Saramago pushes his pre-apocalyptic vision to levels of almost unbearable grimness, before allowing some light of redemption to filter through towards the end of the book. Without the eyes of society on us, Saramago seems to say, we will quickly degenerate to a base selfishness. Those characters that do act with philanthropy and care for others have all at some point come under the influence of the sighted doctor’s wife and are ‘seeing’ through her eyes, coping thanks to her care. Yet in the end, Saramago seems to say, this is the only way we can survive.