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.