The novel follows the misfortunes of a handful of characters who are among the first to be stricken and centers around a doctor and his wife, several of the doctor’s patients, and assorted others, thrown together by chance.
It is written by José Saramago. A Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor rather than the officially sanctioned story.
This book is notable for a few different reasons. First of all, Saramago writes in a manner that can be quite daunting when you first start reading. He uses very few paragraphs and little punctuation. There are no quotation marks to mark the dialogue, no paragraph breaks for new speakers and many times the speaker is never even identified. It sounds like a complete mess and there are, indeed, times when the story becomes somewhat chaotic. However, it works brilliantly. Most of the time, you are able to follow what is happening, even though it can be confusing. You typically have an idea of who is speaking and even when you don’t, it never feels wrong or frustrating. Furthermore, once you begin to lose yourself in the story, the style starts to feel natural and you’ll find it relatively easy to follow.
Saramago uses this style of writing in all of his books, but it works particularly well with Blindness. The style creates a certain level of chaos that fits perfectly with the story at hand. There is an immediacy to the work, as well, that really helps plunge you into the nightmarish world that Saramago creates. In the story, once the blindness has become an epidemic, authorities start rounding up all the people infected and send them to an empty asylum, where they are forced to fend for themselves.No one resides in the asylum to assist them, as they would quickly become infected and blind. Instead, food is left outside for them each day and the premises are secured by armed guards with orders to kill anyone who tries to escape. Every day, new people who have been infected or exposed are brought to the asylum.
The system within the asylum quickly becomes chaotic and hellish. One wing of the hospital is designated for those who are already blind and the other wing for those who have been exposed to the blindness but have not yet become blind. The story mostly takes place in the blind wing, which quickly devolves. Sanitation is essentially nonexistent, stress levels are high and the characters quickly begin acting like little more than animals. The one thing that holds them together is the main character of the story, the wife of a doctor who is not blind. She pretends that she is blind so that she can function undisturbed within the wing, leaving her free to help her husband, who has succumbed to the illness. She stands as the emotional and moral center of the story, helping those around her as much as she can without giving away the fact that she still has her sight, for fear of what the others will do if they find out.
The doctor’s wife is crucial to the novel. She is kind and graceful and moral, a calm in the middle of a truly horrific storm. She is the only one who can literally see what is happening to the people around her and the love and caring that she shows is amazing. She alone seems to understand the true scope of what is happening in the story and she alone sees the full scale of the horror that occurs. The grace with which she handles the situation is incredible. There is one scene in particular at night in the asylum that involves the relationship between her husband and another blind woman in the wing. What happens between them and the way that she handles it is both breathtaking and heartbreaking, leaving you pained and awed and thrilled. The generosity in that moment is overwhelming.
Blindness is a story that deals with the frailty of humanity and society. It is also about human nature. You may be left feeling exhilarated by the humanity on display through the doctor’s wife early in the story, but there are also terrible, horrible events within the book that will leave you shaken. The novel deals with a true breakdown in society and how that can lead to the devolution of the members of that society. There are parts that will leave you sick and disgusted–appalled at the inhumanity that can, and does, exist in the world.
Yet, the grace of the novel–the grace of the doctor’s wife–never fails to shine through. This story is about all of humanity, not just the bad parts. There are moments of quiet tenderness that are breathtaking and devastating–but that fill you with a great appreciation of just how incredibly kind and generous we, as humans, can be. This novel incorporates the full spectrum of what it means to be human, stripping away society to reveal the basic elements, impulses and desires of humanity.
Saramago was born into a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal, a small village in the province of Ribatejo some hundred kilometers north-east of Lisbon. His parents were José de Sousa and Maria de Piedade. “Saramago,” a wild herbaceous plant known in English as the wild radish, was his father’s family’s nickname, and was accidentally incorporated into his name upon registration of his birth. In 1924, Saramago’s family moved to Lisbon, where his father started working as a policeman. A few months after the family moved to the capital, his brother Francisco, older by two years, died. Although Saramago was a good pupil, his parents were unable to afford to keep him in grammar school, and instead moved him to a technical school at age 12.
After graduating, he worked as a car mechanic for two years. Later he worked as a translator, then as a journalist. He was assistant editor of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, a position he had to leave after the political events in 1975. After a period of working as a translator he was able to support himself as a writer. Saramago married Ilda Reis in 1944. Their only child, Violante, was born in 1947. Since 1988, Saramago has been married to the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río, who is the official translator of his books into Spanish.
Saramago’s novels often deal with fantastic scenarios, such as that in his 1986 novel, The Stone Raft, wherein the Iberian Peninsula breaks off from the rest of Europe and sails about the Atlantic Ocean. In his 1995 novel, Blindness, an entire unnamed country is stricken with a mysterious plague of “white blindness”. In his 1984 novel, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (which won the PEN Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Award), Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym survives for a year after the poet himself dies. Additionally, his novel Death with Interruptions centers around a country in which nobody dies over the course of one New Year’s Day and how the country reacts to the spiritual and political implications of the event.