Blindness by José Saramago

★★★★★ (5/5)

We’re going back to being primitive hordes, said the old man with the black eyepatch, with the difference that we are not a few thousand men and women in an immense, unspoiled nature, but thousands of millions in an uprooted, exhausted world

A dystopian parable, Jose Saramago’s “Blindness” is a surreal novel. Peppered with philosophic dictums, the story is a damning indictment on the human condition, our innate selfishness, insatiability, self-indulgence and overt reliance on material resources. The fragility of objective truth is apparent in the context of the story: all tenets of survival humans have concocted for their own benefit are eventually futile in face of a natural cataclysm. Their functioning is limited to a workable universe alone.

The food, then the organisation, both are indispensable for life

Yet, there is a glimmer of hope through the extensive value system to which some adhere to. Amidst widespread turbulence that swoops over an entire city, the courage to live against all odds coerces one group of blind refugees to become the last bastion of human civilization. Folly and heroism are fused to portray humans in their barest, most naked form.

When we are in great distress and plagued by pain and anguish that is when the animal side of our nature becomes most apparent

Synopsis

General, this must be the most logical illness in the world, the eye that is blind transmits the blindness to the eye that sees, what could be simpler

An inexplicable epidemic of white blindness strikes a city. One by one, the blind are interred to quarantine as the government rushes in to contain the endemic through ill-crafted measures. Having lost the sense of sight, blind men and women are pushed to the periphery of humanness. They are reduced to their baser instincts, no different from an animal. Violence, filth, cruelty thrive in squalid conditions where basic needs of food, shelter and sex are triggered without adequate resources at their disposal.

Resistance is reaching its end, time is running out, the water is running out, disease is on the increase, food is becoming poison

Amidst this pandemonium, one woman, the doctor’s wife, still has the gift of sight. She becomes their saviour, feeding the blind and fending for their space. Her compassion for the blind is inexhaustible as she washes grime off them, consoles the raped, provides rations to the hungry and buries the dead honourably. She musters enough courage to kill when she must but at times, the chaos of the world around her becomes unbearable. Through her eyes, the reader witness mayhem of the city, how unprepared all human endeavours are; despite all governmental and bureaucratic structures in place, despite all struggles for survival and organisation, natural calamity can overthrow all efficiency and technological adeptness.

And if it is undeniable that, given the lack of adequate organisation for this operation or of any authority capable of imposing the necessary discipline, the collection of such large quantities of food and its distribution to feed so many mouths led to further misunderstandings

In the heart of disorder of an entire city flourishes a small group of blind refugees led by the doctor’s wife. Their survival is ensured through mutual kindness, generosity and solidarity. They form inimitable bonds of maternal attention (doctor’s wife for all in the group, girl with dark glasses towards boy with a squint), camaraderie (doctor’s wife with girl in dark glasses) and even romantic love (girl with dark glasses with man with the eye-patch).

The difficult thing isn’t living with other people, its understanding them, said the doctor.

Official Ineptness

Throughout the novel runs an incessant strain of inadequate political structures which are unable to provide its blind citizens with enough social security and basic needs protection. The city we traverse through the eyes of doctor’s wife is teetering on dilapidated buildings, outmoded procedures to handle catastrophe and an army of fearful soldiers and callous Generals who have absolutely no regard for the sanctity of life of their fellow citizens.

We have a mental hospital standing empty until we decide what to do with it, several military installations which are no longer being used because of the recent restructuring of the army, a building designed for a trade fair that is nearing completion, and there is even, although no one has been able to explain why, a supermarket about to go into liquidation

Once struck with blindness, people are thrown into pits of hell, a mental hospital, with barely enough wards to contain the ever increasing number of blind men and women. Radical measures are administered upon those who have already gone blind and those who are contagious, with one and only penalty of death for those who resist rules even unknowingly. These enforcements exemplify utter ignorance of authorities in comprehending the dilemma of the blind.

Eleventh, equally, the internees cannot count on any outside intervention should there be any outbreaks of illnesses, nor in the event of any disorder or aggression

Official orders, announced via loudspeakers every day, are nothing less than perplexing. Government expects the blind to be wary of any fires which might get out of control, having just commanded them to burn off their dead. It assumes no responsibility, nor caters to the needs of increasing number of blind interred to the hospital. Instead, the resources provided by the government become scanty over-time, so much so that chaos and tragedy ensues.

But whoever had prepared their rations had forgotten to provide any glasses, nor were there any plates, or cutlery, these would probably come with the lunch

Incompetence of official standards and procedures is evident from the beginning – from collecting the blind in hordes and dumping them off in quarantine, to gathering and distributing adequate resources, to completely and utterly failing in empathy for fellow beings. The political and military structures are shown to be a mere sham, a stepping stone for power and control with absolutely no regard for human rights being extended to those who bring them to power. This aspect is further elucidated in the sequel “Seeing” by Saramago.

Because they could neither see nor count, six blind men came forward. I said four, the sergeant bawled hysterically

The Human Condition

Virtue, should there be anyone who still ignores the fact, always finds pitfalls on the extremely difficult path of perfection, but sin and vice are so favoured by fortune

Human motivations and intentions come under meticulous scrutiny in the course of the novel. From exacting revenge to fending for oneself and others, from resorting to barbarism to establish authority to being selflessly caring of strangers, this novel displays a myriad of human action and inaction.

The sceptics, who are many and stubborn, claim that, when it comes to human nature, if it is true that the opportunity does not always make the thief, it is also true that it helps a lot

From the perspective of a third-person, Saramago ensures that no act is pursued without attributing a rationale to it. One of my favourite instances is the nature of thievery which prompts one man to steal the first blind man’s car. As irony would have it, the thief is struck by blindness later on and they end up in the same ward at the mental hospital. Following is an excerpt of validating an action through the lens of good and evil.

It was only when he got close to the blind man’s home that the idea came to him quite naturally, precisely, one might say, as if he had decided to buy a lottery ticket on catching sight of a ticket-vendor, he had no hunch, he bought the ticket to see what might come of it, resigned in advance to whatever capricious fortune might bring, something or nothing, others would say that he acted according to a conditioned reflex of his personality

The remorse caused by committing some evil act often becomes confused with ancestral fears of every kind, and the result will be that the punishment of the prevaricator ends up being, without mercy or pity, twice what he deserved. In this case it is, therefore, impossible to unravel what proportion of fear and what proportion of the afflicted conscience began to harass the thief the moment he started up the engine of the car and drove off

And again:

A blind man is sacred, you don’t steal from a blind man. Technically speaking, I didn’t rob him, he wasn’t carrying the car in his pocket, nor did I hold a gun to his head, the accused protested in his defence, Forget the sophisms, muttered his conscience, and get on your way

In Saramago’s universe, much leniency is granted to humans for their actions but not without weighing the evens and odds of a circumstance in which the action is carried out in. Saramago interprets action through the myopic lens of determining good and bad.

If, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt

Aphorisms

The novel is interspersed with philosophic and moral dictums, some being everyday quotes one has heard in passing but given no due attention to, others profoundly rattling one’s understanding of the circumstance they are used in, within context of the story. Proverbs, oft-used in conversations by the blind, offer rationalisations and counterpoints to any argument being made. They are either negated or accepted by the majority, thus lending proverbial phrases the power to save lives or end them.

Since logic must prevail, even under extreme duress, Saramago sagaciously utilises everyday truisms to bring vitality to discussions amongst the blind. With no sense of sight but only scissor-sharp wit to rely on, the blind are acutely aware of the potential of their discourses which could either feed them for a day or rob them of lives entirely.

Following is a collection of aphorisms from the novel which struck me the most:

  • Truth often has to masquerade as falsehood to achieve its ends
  • Fighting has always been, more or less, a form of blindness
  • There is nothing in this world that belongs to us in an absolute sense
  • what one does on one’s own initiative is generally less arduous than if one has to do something under duress
  • That when someone starts making small concessions, in the end life loses all meaning
  • It is not from someone’s face and the litheness of their body that we can judge their strength of heart
  • Just as the habit does not make the monk, the sceptre does not make the king, this is a fact we should never forget
  • He who pays in advance always ends up being badly served
  • If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything in our power not to live entirely like animals
  • the voice is the sight of the person who cannot see
  • what the eyes do not see the heart does not grieve over, people would now often say, eyes that do not see have a cast-iron stomach, which explains why they eat so much rubbish
  • Keep what is of no use at the moment, and later you will find what you need
  • you can’t imagine how the list of self-recriminations grows with advancing age
  • One day, when we realise that we can no longer do anything good and useful we ought to have the courage simply to leave this world
  • Something that is offered to us is more ours than something we had to conquer

On Passage of Time

Forever is always far too long a time

For the blind, time assumes another dimension, previously unexplored through sense of sight. Their biological clocks (pertaining to sleep, hunger, sex and other base needs) might function more or less in a similar fashion before blindness overtook them, but the sense of time is profoundly altered.

Yesterday we could see, today we can’t, tomorrow we shall see again, with a slight interrogatory note on the third and final line of the phrase, as if prudence, at the last moment, had decided, just in case, to add a touch of a doubt to the hopeful conclusion

Being able to only see white luminosity everywhere, time distends infinitely. From a colourful, shapely and tangible past to the inexplicable present to the incomprehensible future, the blind eventually lose their grasp on time as a crucial appendage to everyday life.

Furtively, the doctor’s wife adjusted her watch and wound it up, it was four in the afternoon, although, to tell the truth, a watch is unconcerned, it goes from one to twelve, the rest are just ideas in the human mind

Stunning Prose and Vivid Imagery

Do you think my parents will notice it, she asked, The door handle is like the outstretched hand of a house, said the doctor’s wife

For the reader, Saramago’s prose style is analogous to demolishing a solid, brick wall in which sentences are cemented upon one another, punctuated by an occasional comma and an even rarer full stop. No recourse is given to the reader as dialogues are inset within lengthy paragraphs without any speech marks. One must actively and physically toil to follow which dialogue is attributed to which character, which often requires re-reading of an entire conversation.

Do you mean that we have more words than we need, I mean that we have too few feelings, Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express, And so we lose them

Having read the book in an ePub format, I was provided with respite at end of each long-winding paragraph. I cannot fathom the agony of having to read this in hardcover, sentences plastered densely, filling the entirety of a page, margin to margin with only a sporadic full stop to allow one to breathe again. Nameless chapters with only first phrase in all caps to denote start of a new chapter, the prose can be quite exhaustive. But much like the context of the story, the content requires the reader to grind on – an effort quite rewarding by the end.

But at this moment it was as if there were no other living organ in her body, there had to be others, but they gave no sign of being there, her heart, yes, her heart was pounding like a great drum, for ever working blindly in the dark, from the first of all darknesses, the womb in which it was formed, to the last where it would cease

Owing to its style, the prose lends distinct imagery to all senses. One can smell the stench of unwashed bodies, walk bare-feet amidst human excrement, taste unsavoury expired food, hear whispers of the night, and in a purely contextual manner, see human savagery at its most vulnerable. The unending sentences bring to light the façade of human mannerisms and the inherent tendency to exploit the weak.

Triviality of Names

Another interesting aspect of the novel are the nameless characters (in essence of course). Throughout the course of the story, characters are made known through descriptive appellations, labels attributed to either their physicality or vocation. We have the doctor and the doctor’s wife, the first blind man and his wife, the man with the eye patch, the girl with dark glasses, boy with the squint, the car thief, the man with the gun and the dog of tears amongst many other.

In this sightless world, names seem to hold no more meaning than the phrase “watch where you go” or “I see what you mean”. Through characters anonymity, much like the obscurity of city setting where no name is given to the city plagued by blindness, Saramago makes the context of the novel transposable for all ages and culture. Since the story intends to highlight human follies and wisdom intrinsic to all beings irrespective of their geography, beliefs or system of life, declaration of names would have grounded the essence of the story. This anonymity makes the apocalyptic phenomenon plausible for all cultures and societies.

Conclusion

Visceral and daring, Saramago’s novel “Blindness” is not for the faint-hearted. Here, animal instincts innate with humans are dealt with abandon. The prose is repulsive and grimy from the surface, but deep within resides goodness and integrity, values which cultivate human identity and leads to forging of indispensable relations of friendship and love. A somewhat anti-climactic ending is apt given the enigma surrounding the endemic.

She had kept her eyes open as if sight had to enter through them rather than be rekindled from within, suddenly she said, I think I can see, it was best to be prudent, not all cases are the same, it even used to be said there is no such thing as blindness, only blind people, when the experience of time has taught us nothing other than that there are no blind people, but only blindness.


Gorgeous Prose

  • With a rapid movement, what was in sight has disappeared behind the man’s clenched fists, as if he were still trying to retain inside his mind the final image captured, a round red light at the traffic lights.
  • The motorists kept an impatient foot on the clutch, leaving their cars at the ready, advancing, retreating like nervous horses that can sense the whiplash about to be inflicted
  • The blind man opened them wide, as if to facilitate the examination, but the doctor took him by the arm and installed him behind a scanner which anyone with imagination might see as a new version of the confessional, eyes replacing words, and the confessor looking directly into the sinner’s soul
  • He knew that his image was there watching him, his image could see him, he could not see his image.
  • There is a marked difference between a blind person who is sleeping and a blind person who has opened his eyes to no purpose
  • The others took a little longer, they were dreaming they were stones, and we all know how deeply stones sleep, a simple stroll in the countryside shows it to be so, there they lie sleeping, half buried, awaiting who knows what awakening
  • The music has stopped, never has there been so much silence in the world, the cinemas and theatres are only frequented by the homeless who have given up searching
  • And so from bed to bed, the news slowly circulated round the ward, increasingly distorted as it was passed on from one inmate to the next, in this way diminishing or exaggerating the details, according to the personal optimism or pessimism of those relaying the information
  • it seems impossible that the animal drive for sex should be so powerful, to the point of blinding a man’s sense of smell, the most delicate of the senses, there are even some theologians who affirm, although not in these exact words, that the worst thing about trying to live a reasonable life in hell is getting used to the dreadful stench down there

The Human Predicament

  • The doctor’s wife thought to herself, They’re behaving as if they were afraid of getting to know each other
  • The isolation in which they now find themselves will represent, above any personal considerations, an act of solidarity with the rest of the nation’s community
  • The blind moved as one would expect of the blind, groping their way, stumbling, dragging their feet, yet as if organised, they knew how to distribute tasks efficiently
  • The taxi-driver and the two policemen were the other casualties, three robust fellows who could take care of themselves, whose professions meant, in different ways, looking after others, and in the end there they lie, cruelly mowed down in their prime and waiting for others to decide their fate
  • Advancing on all fours, their faces practically touching the ground as if they were pigs, one arm outstretched in mid-air, while others, perhaps afraid that the white space, without a roof to protect them, would swallow them up, clung desperately to the rope and listened attentively
  • The cars, trucks, motor-bikes, even the bicycles, were scattered chaotically throughout the entire city, abandoned wherever fear had gained the upper hand over any sense of propriety
  • Thanking fortune that his shame might remain, as it were, at home, rather than bear the vexation of knowing that he was being kept alive by the wives of others
  • Patient, be patient, there are no crueller words, better to be insulted

On Darkness and White Blindness

  • The blind man raised his hands to his eyes and gestured, Nothing, it’s as if I were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea. But blindness isn’t like that, said the other fellow, they say that blindness is black, Well I see everything white
  • He had even reached the point of thinking that the darkness in which the blind live was nothing other than the simple absence of light, that what we call blindness was something that simply covered the appearance of beings and things, leaving them intact behind their black veil
  • Now, on the contrary, here he was, plunged into a whiteness so luminous, so total, that it swallowed up rather than absorbed, not just the colours, but the very things and beings, thus making them twice as invisible.
  • blindness did not mean being plunged into banal darkness, but living inside a luminous halo
  • The doctor’s wife lit for her own benefit, the others did not need them, they already had a light inside their heads, so strong it had blinded them

Blindness and Death

  • Blindness isn’t catching, Death isn’t catching either, yet nevertheless we all die
  • but in my opinion we’re already dead, we’re blind because we’re dead, or if you would prefer me to put it another way, we’re dead because we’re blind, it comes to the same thing
  • We are so afraid of the idea of having to die, said the doctor’s wife, that we always try to find excuses for the dead, as if we were asking beforehand to be excused when it is our turn
  • There were men and women who appeared as fluid as ghosts, they could have been ghosts attending a burial out of curiosity, merely to recall how it had been when they were buried
  • We are already half dead, said the doctor, We are still half alive too, answered his wife

On Words and Feelings

  • The feelings with which we have lived and which allowed us to live as we were, depended on our having the eyes we were born with, without eyes feelings become something different
  • She could find no reply, replies do not always come when needed, and it often happens that the only possible reply is to wait for them.
  • I’ll see less and less all the time, even though I may not lose my eyesight I shall become more and more blind because I shall have no one to see me
  • Therefore it was not uncommon that the listeners gently lowered their eyelids, forced themselves to follow with the eyes of the soul the vicissitudes of the plot until a more energetic passage shook them from their torpor
  • The dog of tears went up to her, it always knows when it is needed, that’s why the doctor’s wife clung to him, it is not that she no longer loved her husband, it is not that she did not wish them all well, but at that moment her feeling of loneliness was so intense, so unbearable, that it seemed to her that it could be overcome only by the strange thirst with which the dog drank her tears.
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