José Saramago: Blindness

I was surprised to see that José Saramago’s Blindness was first published just 15 years ago (13 in English); it seems to have been fast-tracked into the canon. I thought then of an even more recent novel which has sped to modern classic status: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Could one reason be the timelessness of their setting? Each gives us a stripped-down world, a society collapsed, primal fear, and just the smallest homeopathic hint of torturous hope.

Blindness (1995, tr. 1997 by Giovanni Pontiero with Margaret Jull Costa) is a latecomer to the apocalypse genre. I use the word ‘genre’ loosely, since the book despite its familiar theme does not belong clearly in any literary category. This didn’t stop Village Voice from calling it “the year’s most propulsive and profound thriller”. Blindness is not a thriller; although there are varied thrills here, Saramago’s eccentric style (run-on sentences and dialogue in unbroken blocks of text) rejects the simpler tricks of a thriller: the short sentences, paragraphs and chapters that imitate pace.

Yet it clearly has a story model with heritage: there is no shortage of books with the high concept of testing human society by visiting some (un)natural disaster on the population. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in particular has superficial similarities: there, almost everyone was blinded by a comet, which was a handy tool to enable Wyndham to render walking plants lethal. Blindness is more purely allegorical, with no specified setting in time or place. Here, people succumb to a mysterious and highly contagious form of blindness, which reduces the victim’s vision to “a milky sea,”

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.

The victims of “the white evil” are rounded up into an asylum and put under armed guard (not for their own protection). Saramago’s points are well made here: the micro-society within the asylum is at first under the control of the authorities outside, unformed itself because it requires no internal discipline. Then, as more and more join the asylum internees, sub-groups form and a hierarchy of power develops within the compound. The blind suffer the worst of all worlds, on the one hand with all the chaos of life without sight, particularly once people stop bothering to look for the toilets (leading to a “carpet of trampled excrement”), but also victims of the subjugation of the fearful larger populace and also their own internal thugs providing a malign sort of order. Blindness shows a world of contradictions: people thrown together through this suffering are more likely to forgive one another’s trespasses, but also become less responsible; they need to work together, but limited provisions make them desperately self-interested. One character who can still see but daren’t admit it, has the benefit of sight but the burden of responsibility.

In case we miss the point, Saramago has a tendency to reinforce his messages with comments from characters (“The whole world is right here” observes one asylum inmate, “This is the stuff we’re made of, half indifference and half malice,” or another, “Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be as they truly are”) or the nebulous narrator, who counsels readers against

a tendency to make hasty and definitive judgements, a mania which, owing to our exaggerated self-confidence, we shall perhaps never be rid of.

In fact it’s this eccentric narrative voice which frequently provides texture to the book while the reader is wondering when we’re going to get past the stuff described on the back cover blurb of the UK edition (around page 210, it turns out), and wondering if the book is ever going to progress beyond a increasingly squalid struggle for survival. (Spoiler: it doesn’t.) But quibbles about plot or plausibility miss the point of a book like this, which fires off so many thoughts in the brain while reading it that even pages of the most run-of-the-mill activities become impossibly stimulating. There are even jokes (and here is a good example of the thickets of dialogue in Saramago’s narrative, where each capital letter after a comma represents a change of speaker):

That same day, in the late afternoon, the Ministry of Defence contacted the Ministry of Health, Would you like to hear the latest news, that colonel we mentioned earlier has gone blind, It’ll be interesting to see what he thinks of that bright idea of his now, He already thought, he shot himself in the head, Now that’s what I call a consistent attitude, The army is always ready to show an example.

One interpretation of Blindness has it that it – like The Death of Grass, or The Road, or all the others – shows how fragile our civilisation is, and how always close society is to collapse. This is to succumb to the evergreen vanity of believing that things have never been worse than they are now, that one’s own generation will be the last before apocalypse. A more optimistic view might be to point out that in Blindness, it takes an entirely impossible disaster to occur before society breaks down. It could show, in other words, not civilisation’s fragility but its robustness. It also asks whether temporary matters have lasting consequences; and it seems pretty clear that although Saramago is no more, his books will live on, at least for as long as society does.


  1. I’ve had a copy of this on the shelf for years. Your fine review has instilled a fair bit of enthusiasm to put it on the pile. Is anyone working on a pause button for time?

  2. Blindness is my second favourite book of all time (after A Fine Balance). It is great to see that you appreciated it too. I’d warn you to avoid watching the DVD though – it just doesn’t work. I don’t know why anyone thought that a book about being blind would work on the big screen where you can see. Madness!

  3. A more optimistic view might be to point out that in Blindness, it takes an entirely impossible disaster to occur before society breaks down.

    I don’t think a disease that causes blindness is particularly more impossible than, say, a comet that causes blindness plus walking plants, or even particularly more impossible than The Road, to be honest. So I’m not sure about this interpretation. I’m more inclined to take the book not as strictly allegorical, but as a prompt to conisder the blindnesses that afflict our society and lead to suffering every day.

    I assume you haven’t read Seeing yet, but I recommend it; it makes an excellent counterpart.

  4. I agree Niall – in fact I meant (but didn’t say) that most of these disaster novels rely on fanciful premises, yet one common interpretation of them seems to be that they show how close our society is to collapse. Interestingly, I’m currently reading Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed, a work of non-fiction which details, among other things, how many officials in the UK felt that society there was close to collapse in the 1970s – not through outside agencies but by the government’s own action, or lack thereof.

    I’m grateful too for your succinct summary of the book, though surely that is an allegorical interpretation too (physical blindness represents ‘social’ blindness)?

    Thanks for the comments too, lee, Jackie and Jessica. Lee, you should indeed pluck it from your shelves.

  5. most of these disaster novels rely on fanciful premises, yet one common interpretation of them seems to be that they show how close our society is to collapse.

    Ah, ok. Yes, I agree there’s something of a paradox buried in there. If anything, though, I think Blindness is at the less optimistic end of the scale — its catastrophe is local, not global, and part of its tragedy (for me at least) is the way in which society fails even without the blindness, and the city is cut loose to fend for itself.

    I said not “strictly” allegorical because of its multivalence — I don’t think you can pin down one mapping as preferential in the way that you can with, say, Animal Farm. But in the couple of minutes between these comments, I’ve been reminded of Jonathan McCalmont’s discussion of the film and book, which considers them as allegories about allegories; I think there’s something in that.

  6. I am just reading the book and find it as a great catalogue of human virtues and vices. It is so to the point, so clinical when it comes to the observation of individuals, group and the whole society. I am amazed how easily he writes and makes clear this small step between altruism and malice. How spectre of behaviour of single human being can go from lowest lows to highest highs and how they make the circle and touch sometimes. Great book.

  7. I’d actually argue that what makes Blindness so scary is that it could very easily happen. Walking plants don’t seem very likely, but a disease that causes Blindness could easily occur tomorrow. Even diseases that don’t cause Blindness, like flu pandemics etc, could cause our infrastructure to break down. Blindness shows us how quickly our society collapses when people/goods are unable to be transported. It made me want to move to the country and become self-sufficient!

    1. How you can be self-sufficent if you are blind? I think the book shows how fragile we are as indivduals and as a group/society. But also it shows that we have to be aware of our finiteness and aspire to great deeds in order to make a mark and live a worthwhile life.

  8. Yes Jackie, I get those self-sufficiency urges every time issues like global financial collapse, peak oil, swine flu etc make the headlines. Then again, who am I kidding? If society collapsed, all I’d be after would be the little pills they handed out in On the Beach.

    CuriousBookFan, thanks for your comments and for visiting my blog!

    I recommend to anyone the link Niall posted in his last message: a very good analysis of the book (and the film).

    What is it about social-collapse/apocalypse novels that appeals to writers and readers so? Is it, for the writer, the chance to stretch his or her imaginative powers and explore issues unrestricted by realism? I’ve just read another, Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, which like Johns Wyndham and Christopher and Nevil Shute, comes from the nuclear-fearing 50s. More recently, I believe Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was inspired by his concerns for what sort of a world his son would grow up in if global warming wasn’t dealt with.

  9. Blindness is a true watershed book for me. When I abandoned it halfway through, I decided it was time for my to abandon any further attempts at dystopian novels. When a novel that was as well-written as this one is (well, the first half since that is all that I read) and I still can’t finish it, the issue is obviously my reaction to the genre, not the book itself.

    Which is why I love that you read and review them — I get all the information that interests me from the review and comments while still getting to exercise my own prejudice. Please keep up the great work.

    Might you consider Oryx and Crake? 🙂 🙂 🙂

  10. Consider it considered, Kevin. It didn’t take long.

    I don’t in fact have any particular love for dystopian fiction – indeed, my susceptibility to apocalyptic fears means that my natural inclination is to avoid them. But good publishers keep reissuing them. Interestingly, Blindness is one of the few which doesn’t adopt the tone of a pulpish sci-fi story, or ‘cosy catastrophe’ (The Road would be another).

  11. “Consider it considered”. Somehow I thought that would be the response. I guess asking for The Year of the Flood would be totally out of order.

    I didn’t mean to portray you as a dystopian fiction cultist — if anything, I meant the opposite. You filter out the obvious junk (where I would not even want to read a review), but do read a selection from the legitimate (which I don’t want to read but do want to read about) — so I get the best of all worlds.

    I agree The Road would be another. It is one that, if I ever feel my aversion is waning, I would be willing to attempt.

  12. I always attributed Saramago’s strategies to a certain ‘Latin’ flair; somthing that we can also see in Sábato’s The Tunnel, and also in his compatriot A. Lobo Antunes, but now that you mention McCarthy and Atwood, this may expand my vision. An interesting thing, though, is your comment on syntax and punctuation. Many authors that have experimented there have been praised and given Nobel prizes (Jelinek, Gordimer, Müller…), have you noticed?

  13. I think my main qualm with Blindness probably comes from my own deep-lying intellectual insecurity – the fact that it’s a book also loved by the witless, in the same way Dubliners is a lightning-rod for all pseudo-intellectuals who can’t be bothered to read Joyce’s later works and pronounce The Dead as the greatest short story ever (it’s not).
    I can’t fight through the fact that it is too much of a fable, too eager to tell us what we need to think for ourselves. Death with Interruptions, while lesser in scope, does much better not to preach.

    Of the Saramago books I’ve read, All the Names towers above the others. It truly is in a class of its own.

    1. Oh yes. All the Names, the first Saramago I read, is still the one I’d put on top of the pile. I loved The Double as well. Blindness I read and liked, but was a little disappointed because I thought it didn’t quite live up to all the praise a friend of mine had heaped on it.
      I guess that might be because I tend to enjoy books that get into one character’s head over those that describe large worlds.

  14. Thanks Gadi. It’s true that Blindness does love to tell us what we should be thinking (I quoted some of more obvious examples above). Thanks for the recommendation of All the Names, which isn’t one I’d have immediately gone for myself.

  15. On behalf of the witless, I loved Blindness. I think the appeal of dystopian fiction is what it tells us about the mutability of personal identity. I Most of us flatter ourselves that our values exist independently of our circumstances, but in post-apocalyptic novels, the general theme is that our “goodness” is conditional rather than intrinsic . In books like Blindness we have the opportunity to confront the darkness in our own hearts.

  16. What a drag it is the witless and pseudo-readers despoiling the pure intellectual waters by their trespassing and illusory presence within those distilled domains. Those little people really are pathetic.

  17. It sounds obvious.

    The Black Cloud John? That’s a bit of a museum piece. Is that the one where Hoyle trots out his ideas on the steady state universe model via a cosmic gas cloud? I avoid more for fear of spoilers, not knowing where you are in it.

    I think the appeal of collapse novels lies in our own mortality. We all face the end of our world and there’s a peculiar cruelty to the idea the world just continues once we’re no longer a part of it. In this genre, it doesn’t. We may have to die, but the world goes with us.

    That and it’s a marvellous genre for expressing society’s fears. Nuclear in the 50s. Overpopulation in the 60s. Environmental collapse in the 70s and so on. It’s not quite that clear cut, but it’s not a world away from that either.

    Presently our fears are more free floating, and so our apocalypses more uncertain in their nature.

  18. Thanks Max. Richard Dawkins provides an afterword to The Black Cloud which comments on Hoyle’s support of the steady state model (as against the Big Bang – actually an ironic coinage of Hoyle’s, apparently, intended to be dismissive of the theory) but I didn’t really notice that it had any bearing on the book itself. Anyway my review will go up in the next couple of weeks, so that might be a better place to continue the discussion.

  19. I’m afriad I found the book a relatively dead, linear read. It could I think be distilled to something like its essence in the form of the parable:

    “One day a man went completely blind. This proved contagious and everything began to go to shit.”

    The book then fleshes out this process for two or three hundred pages. I think there’s little enough really to the inner thought or germ of the book that it warrants such fleshing out, & I don’t really think it all that interesting a thought even in its distilled form in the first place.
    I’ve a shortish piece I think which relates below:

  20. ‘Man goes on three different journeys, encounters trouble and then tries to recollect it all but it’s fraught amidst memory/storytelling/narrative forming issues’ – Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room.

    There. I needn’t have read it after all. Thanks Andrew.

    ‘Boy goes to baseball game. Other shit happens involving refuse, art installations in the desert.’ – Underworld.

    ‘Boy masturbates.’ – Portnoy’s Complaint.

    ‘Some people hang around.’ – Waiting For Godot.

  21. The point being Lee that the book as said the book is little more than the germ of the idea fleshed out. There is no discovery in the writing or the reading. It is ‘dead’ and linear in tone and essence, monotonous and linear in tone, all a utilitarian functional process. There is very little freedom of inner space into which undetermined life can enter.

    One could summarise something like Hamlet perhaps in a line or two but this would be a very superficial act and in no sense a distilling of that work, as it is not determined by some all-encompassing idea; instead it is an organic, an open undetermined space. I found Saramago’s work almost wholly contrary to this – inert, suffocating, just as any space short of air will become.

    1. I disagree. I want the extrapolations upon a central conceit, the incidentals, the following of digression. Therein often lies the true crux of an idea: the instances found, off in the margins or at the end of a discursive interrogation, that truly draw the whole thing into focus and inform the whole, or enrich it at least. Yes, many books could do with a serious sift and edit. But you can distil works all day long, have a pared-down, one page ‘treatment’ version. I’m not interested in that at all.

  22. It’s hard to clear up our positions in these unfortunately inevitable staccato internet exchanges, but of course one wants a work to be ultimately unified, though to wander off a bit, the knot of unity in say, Greek drama I’d find stifiling, overly compressed. But my lack of engagement with Blindness was its montonal nature, for me a flat, unchanging landscape. It began as it very obviously was continuing, and the digressions or enriching were merely the material events that were the unfolding of the logic of the central idea: the contagious blindness, & I didn’t find that all too an interesting an idea to watch unfold.
    From the very first page I thought there was something of a kind of complacent banality to the position of the author/narrator. For example, page one:

    ‘The people began to cross the road, stepping onto the white stripes painted onto the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called.’

    The dry clarity of his vision! except that the things less like a black & white striped zebra than this black & white striped crossing are more or less endless, the silver coat hanger a foot or so from me, the computer screen a similar distance in front of me, to name the first two things my eyes rest on. And for me that kind of banal falseness is something like the book in its essence; life reduced to a mediocre, tedious conceit, reflective of nothing but the false certainty of the author.

  23. That you didn’t warm to Blindness is beyond either my inclination to resolve or my ability to should I have wished to. We clearly diverge somewhat. Whereas you find only ‘complacent banality’ here I find much to engage amidst the portrayal of a blindness contagion and the prompted musings. Regarding monotone: I can only assume that what I find powerful you find monotonous. Not to sound witless here, hopefully…

  24. I may have ruffled a few feathers with my ‘witless’ remark, but take it with a grain of salt, eh? It’s my own insecurities, as I’ve stated, and one might enjoy it without being witless and one may be witless and not enjoy it completely (me being a case in point). As I’ve said I just might have had too many experiences with people mentioning the title as sort of an ego-boosting “I read intelligent books” and in a laudatory tone usually reserved for books one hasn’t actually read.

    I find John’s reviews worthwhile because he finds faults, as we all do, even in literary “classics” and “masterpieces”. And as one reads more and more novels – all, thanks to helpful suggestions, relatively “worthy” books – one still has to have the acuity to critique even what one enjoys thoroughly. Saramago is one of those authors I read with breathless delight all the way through in a few short sittings, but that doesn’t make his work perfect. And his writing beyond his parable novels is much better. A parable will always be a limiting factor and akin to a thought-experiment.

  25. (Checks) No, feathers unruffled. You seem slightly over-concerned with affected berks and perhaps a bit pre-emptive otherwise. But I see where you’re coming from. Who’s talking about anything being perfect, though? Easy there, Gadi….

  26. i think the essential element in “blindness” is the whiteness, the usual clinical blindness manifests as black. this strange blindness leads to the chaos that social dissolution would cause. scenes from the asylum reminded me of the holocaust. it occurred to me (with a jolt) that saramago’s message is that this different blindness was emotional blindness. most have no idea how they feel. it is saramago’s genius to know this is a major factor influencing human dysfunction.

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