Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his book Blindness. I knew nothing about the book going in, but generally expect books of this type to challenge me.
Suddenly, the city is overwhelmed by an epidemic of “white blindness”. It seems terribly contagious and yet spares one person who we meet, the wife of an ophthalmologist.
Once the authorities learn about the illness, they immediately start rounding up people: the afflicted and those who have come in contact with them. They lock them away in and the city falls apart as no one is left with sight to run all of the day to day functions.
We follow one group of people detained in a repurposed mental hospital as they navigate their blindness and struggle to survive in the new world order. Factions erupt and start fighting with each other for food. Topics explored include rape, greed, violence, caring, murder, collaboration, hierarchies, vulnerability and death.
This book is written in many voices. Much of the book is written in dialogue but Saramago also explores some of the motivations of the characters as well as their actions. The writing is dense, with every word seeming significant. The book explores deep, existential questions.
“I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”
This book makes me wish I was still in a book club, as there is so much to talk about and make sense of. The author compares blindness to many actions and states such as fighting and death. He doesn’t use names for the characters, but rather physical descriptions and job titles. We could be a character in this book, or someone we know. The punctuation is for dialogue instead of writing, with sentences they go on, separated by commas. The book is an allegory, exploring humanity and the state of the world.
Eventually, the guards become blind and the detainees are able to escape from the asylum. We follow the group as they go out into the world, led by the one sighted woman that we meet in the story.
The world is in chaos with groups of blind people moving together to find shelter and food. Everyone had a hard time finding food and animals begin to eat dead people. Some people eat raw animals that they’re able to kill. People perform their body functions anywhere. Saramago says:
“people get used to anything, especially if they have seized to be people, and even if they have not quite reached that point”.
Guided by the doctor’s wife who can see, the small group of blind people make their way around the city to visit their homes, if they can remember their location. The doctor’s wife manages to find some food and they stretch it to make it last. Just when the group is debating moving to the countryside, where they can live off the earth, one by one, people start regaining their sight. Does that mean that the doctor’s wife will lose hers?