Blindness by José Saramago
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I am always a book person and never a movie person, but I saw Blindness before I read it. Due to my previous scarring experiences with Latin American literature, and oft-cited comparisons between Saramago and Garcia Marquez, I have shied away from Saramago's novels before. The movie, and the fact that Saramago is Portuguese and has been recommended by friends many times before, made me start this one. The movie is absolutely brilliant, and one of the only movies I have seen which had parts that I was physically unable to watch. One scene in particular is etched in the back of my head; I'm sure that anybody who has either read or seen Blindness will be able to guess which one.
A man goes blind while driving his car, and is helped home by another man (who later also falls blind). When she arrives home, the first man's wife takes him to an ophthalmologist. These three people, along with the people in the waiting room, the doctor and his wife, are the central cast of characters. All but the doctor's wife fall blind at some point in the following days.
Unsure of the nature of the illness, how is transmitted and how it should be dealt with, the government moves all blind people into one part of an old asylum, and separately quarantines those that have come into contact with them. The asylum is ferociously guarded by armed security, which becomes progressively brutal as the government's interest in the blind's welfare diminishes. There is no medical or other assistance provided to the inmates, beyond food packages delivered each day, which the blind must ration out themselves. The asylum descends into a filthy and chaotic hell, where nobody is set to monitor, assist or oversee the complicated and dangerous existence that the inmates must live.
The doctor's wife is the only person able to see, but fearful of what may happen if others realise, keeps this secret. She is a gentle and warm character, whose voice provides much insight into the conditions in the asylum. She quietly and thanklessly provides some semblance of dignity and order for people who are none the wiser, and functions as a beacon of hope in this story of horror and dysfunction.
The book charts this state of systemic breakdown and apparently abandonment by authorities, where there are no witnesses to peoples' actions and abuses, and where leaders appoint themselves and others fall into line. The setting of Blindness is never identified, and could be anywhere, just as the characters remain nameless, and could be anybody. Part of Blindness's power lies in the way it examines humanity, and the way we degenerate into brute animalism at what seems like the first opportunity. It is graphic in some parts, often haunting, and extremely moreish. Looking back, I'm not sure exactly how much time elapses during the book, but it doesn't seem like more than a few weeks.
Much of the dialogue is difficult to read and follow. People interrupt each other, and thus the flow of paragraphs and thoughts. This disjointed and enforced slowness perhaps mirrors the clumsy, disorganised way that the blind move, jostling up against each other.
Some parts of the book are truly hideous, which makes them no less 'true' or imaginable. Do read it. I wish I had read the book before seeing the movie (obviously, I suppose) as knowing the ending really dampened the suspense that would otherwise have been delightfully unbearable.
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