Saturday, August 18, 2007

José Saramago/BLINDNESS

I imagine this might be the most "accessible" book by the much-praised Portuguese Nobel Prizewinner, José Saramago: it adopts the well-worn sci-fi premise of a breakdown of social order following on some great catastrophe. In this case, however, the apocalyptic event is an epidemic of contagious blindness.

Saramago doesn't follow a conventional sci-fi approach, though. There's little consideration of the mechanics of the disease or its epidemiology (indeed, the author seems at times to be endorsing the superstitious response of some of the victims that it can be spread by sight), nor of the details of national and international response from governments. The premise is that the prospect of acquiring blindness by contact is so terrifying that the victims are immediately ostracized, isolated. The book follows a small group of the earliest victims, who have been detained in a disused mental hospital and left to their own devices, left to create a new society for themselves. (The soldiers guarding them are hesitant even to deliver their food; there is no medical treatment available, no supervision of any kind.) It thus becomes a parable of the Nazi concentration camps, of the breakdown of humanity in the face of extreme circumstances. The sexual brutalisation of the female internees by a criminal gang that forms within the hospital is a particularly harrowing episode.

Some aspects of the story are less than entirely convincing. The harshness of the government's immediate response doesn't ring true, and seems to arise from a non-existence of any biological containment measures. Saramago also assumes that victims of sudden-onset blindness, lacking the benefit of therapy and support, will never really come to grips with their disability; in particular, the victims are represented as being incapable of keeping themselves clean: ordure is a recurring image in the book, particularly in the later stages, where the entire world has gone blind.

Such quibbles are perhaps irrelevant: this is, after all, more of a fable than a realistic novel. The ruthlessness of those is power is a key theme; the ubiquitous shit is a necessary symbol of the decay of civilization.

Saramago's trademark style - long, stream-of-consciousness sentences, dispensing with conventional punctuation - can become a little wearing. At times it can produce some quite startling and useful effects, creating a swift, sinuous narrative of action, or subtly shifting perspective to take us briefly inside the head of one or more of the characters. At other times, though, it's simply mannered and irritating (it's particularly heavy going when it's rendering dialogue: it's sometimes almost impossible to keep track of who's saying what to whom).

These reservations aside, it is a superb premise, compellingly told; a powerful, distressing, thought-provoking book. I read it recently while trapped in a Chinese airport by an interminable, unexplained flight delay: it was a very useful reminder that my misfortune really wasn't all that bad.

7 comments:

Tulsa said...

Hi Moonrat! We haven't really "met", but I assume you know me... Tulsa.

I like this book review idea. Thanks for setting it up.

I'll be back to read the review, in a little bit.

moonrat said...

Welcome, Tulsa...

Froog--I've wanted to read something of his for a long time. It's good to know this one is the most accessible. I think dystopian fictions are difficult to do well, but this sounds like an interesting spin.

angelle said...

i've heard good things about his books. been on my maybe list for awhile. thanks for this.

Tulsa said...

I read this book shortly after Froog and immediately after reading Sacred Games, another book heavy on society vs. society and society vs. man themes, with tragic results. So, perhaps I was well into a gloom mindset when I jumped into Blindness.

Like Froog said, it is more parable, less sci fi. If you don't allow yourself to lose suspension of disbelief over some details, you'll be able to move along in the story quite well.

That said, I was impressed with the detail Saramago put into day-to-day survival. It is a thought provoking study on how society functions through a breakdown and how individual people function through a breakdown.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

I have this book in my TBR pile. I also have SEEING. Aren't they related somehow? Maybe so, maybe no...

Lisa said...

I thought this was an incredible book and it really bothered me for days after I put it down. I really felt like the long, confusion sentences and his lack of punctuation served to fill in for the lack of description because -- after all, almost everyone is blind. I've not read any other Saramago, but I'd like to. I've heard that Seeing, the "sequel" to Blindness is not quite as good.

sssssssssstu said...

I've read about half of Saramago's books. Blindness was by far my least favorite. I found it to be brutal, mundane, and mostly pointless. I much preferred the sequel "Seeing". I would not consider Blindness a prerequisite either.
I think his Jesus book is actually the most accessible - especially if you are familiar with the new testament and are open to a little blasphemy.
My favorite Saramago? Siege of Lisbon. It was also the first i read so i need to revisit it to confirm, but i reminder it being seriously earth-shatteringly brilliant; unlike anything i'd ever read...