In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. — Erasmus
Erasmus’ quote above is usually used in an allegorical way, usually after somebody says something like “Well, you know more about it than anybody else.” However, it applies quite literally to Blindness by Jose Saramago, a book that challenges its readers, but leaves them ultimately hopeful even though it is filled with darkness.
The story begins when a man waiting for a red light is suddenly struck blind. Within a few pages we find out that the sudden blindness is also highly contagious as the man manages to give it to the person who helps him home as well as the eye doctor he goes to see. The nature of the blindness is also strange, in that the person affected sees only a bright white light.
It doesn’t take long before a large group of people is affected by the blindness and the government steps in to take action against the quick-spreading plague. The people going blind are rounded up and taken to an old mental health asylum where they are quarantined. In a noble act of love for her husband, the eye doctor’s wife pretends to be blind so that she can be taken away with him.
The remainder of the book follows a small group of blind people (and the still sighted doctor’s wife) as they try to live through the horrors of not only being blind, but also being made to suffer the atrocities of those who know that no one can see them.
A Bright Darkness
This book, much like The Road that I reviewed in an earlier post, surrounds the reader with an overwhelming atmosphere. While in The Road the atmosphere was one of a gray world, this book envelopes you in darkness. For all of the fact that the strange blindness surrounds the afflicted in a bright light, the book makes you feel as if you are walking through an eternal night. It is a credit to the author that the feeling is so overwhelming.
Also similar to The Road is the fact that this book has its fair share of graphic moments. They are realistically portrayed and they are moments that would occur were something like this to happen. The fact that a building full of newly blind people would become a cesspool very quickly, since the inhabitants have a hard time finding the bathrooms isn’t much of a stretch. That, and the penchant for people who know they can’t be seen to try and get away with things they otherwise wouldn’t, just adds to the darkness of this book.
Ultimately, though, I felt satisfied by this book. In the character of the doctor’s wife the author shows the nobility of the human spirit and what it can do when it needs to. The other characters, with the exception of a few, are not truly evil either. They are normal people put into an abnormal situation. In the end, even these people are shown to hold incredible reserves of strength.
I did have some problems with parts of this book, mainly in the style of the writing and a choice of the author. First, the writing can be very difficult to follow, as many passages are just strewn together bits of conversation and description. It may be due to the fact that this is a translation, but I doubt it. It’s not impossible to read, but it does get distracting sometimes.
The other thing I didn’t fully understand was the author’s choice not to give anyone in the book actual names. At one point in the narrative it is declared that blind people don’t need names, since others are just voices that they hear. I take issue with that, as I think if I were blind, I would cling to people’s names as the one thing I still had. A name is something that floats in the air. It is not physical. In this it seems odd that the author would do this, especially when it becomes at times very difficult to manage. With characters such as “the boy with the squint” and “the woman with the dark glasses” or “the second blind man” it again takes the reader out of the narrative and disrupts things.
Overall, I would say that Blindness is a good book, but not a great book. I was certainly affected by it while I was reading it, but I can’t say that the feeling has stuck with me. If you’re put off by a bit of violence, I wouldn’t recommend it — I don’t know that it offers enough to demand you to work through its darkness.
As a side note, I understand that a movie was recently released based on this book. I’m curious as to how they will manage pulling that off and having read the book, I can’t say I would be very eager to sit in a dark theater and watch this play out.
Who would like it: People willing to suffer some dark glimpses of human nature to see shorter glimpses of its noble light.
Who wouldn’t like it: People put off by violence and darkness.