I have recently completed Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Saramago is a Nobel laureate and Blindness is his most popular novel. Saramago writes in lengthy sentences and each paragraph grows to fill up the entire page. I suspect the original Portuguese version must have been in this fashion. But the translator Giovanni Pontiero, who died immediately after finishing this work and who did not live to complete the revision of his translation, has done a laudable job in making us fully enjoy this terrific novel.
I am not interested in the mumbo jumbo of post modernism and the magical realism aspects, though I am familiar with them through articles by literary critics. I am still incapable of getting a grip on these concepts I guess. Of course these literary grazing prompts my selecting certain novels to read. At least I get to know the names of the authors’ notable works. I can not, and would not be willing to, classify Blindness into any literary category. What I intend to do here is to share whatever experience I went through while reading this novel.
The novel starts with a man suddenly going blind in the middle of the heavy traffic of the city. Just like that he becomes blind. Instead of darkness, he sees vast whiteness. He was in his car driving when he lost his sight. He was accompanied by one of the people to his home. The person who helped him takes this opportunity to steal the blind man’s car. Moments later, the car thief also looses sight, the doctor who attends the person who lost his sight also becomes blind and the trend continues. It was slowly becoming clear that inhabitants of the whole city (which city? No mention of it.)are loosing their sight. Government decides to intervene to try and sort out this present predicament until a remedy is found for the White Sickness as it would like to call this epidemic. The government collects the blind people from various parts of the city and places them inside a mental asylum. It is believed that anyone who comes near the vicinity of those who were already blinded by the white sickness will be infected. The people who were suspected of having been infected were also taken to the asylum and placed in a separate wing. The novel then describes how these blind people, particularly a group of blind people with whom we can identify ourselves with, suffer the consequences when the whole city finally went blind. Not only do they suffer, they also try to overcome and survive. And survive they do.
The novel does not give names of any of the characters. It simply refers people with their peculiar appearances. The man who becomes blind is simply the first blind man, his wife is the wife of the first blind man, and the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the thief, the sergeant, the man with the black patch and so on. This is the first I have come across where the characters do not have names.
Everyone in the novel is blind, everyone except one person, that is the doctor’s wife. She was the lucky one. But she did not think so. She thinks that by having eyesight, she was being punished. She has to endure the pain of seeing the turmoil around her. She takes it upon herself to help the blind people around her. She could not possibly help all the inhabitants of the city, who have lost their sight, but still there is her husband and the people around her. When people around her were losing sight rapidly, it is really inexplicable why she retains her eyesight. Perhaps, through her eyes only we would be able to undertake the journey through the entire novel.
Once you are into the novel, you are awestruck by the possibilities the situation in which all its characters present are blind (with the exception of the doctor’s wife, of course) offers. Have we ever thought about what would happen if we all go blind in an instant? What would become of our day to day activities? How are we to obtain our daily bread? How are we to carry out our ablutions? What would happen to the city’s sanitary maintenance when all those who did the up keeping have gone blind? Who runs the city? What would become of your possessions? Who takes care of them? The novel describes in excruciating details of the trials posed by these obscene situation and how the blind people encounter them.
Within days of the start of the epidemic, the asylum becomes a nasty place with full of human filth since the blind people can not possibly find their way to the toilets which were also full and blocked. The government draws a boundary and orders the blind people to confine themselves within the boundary. Whoever tries to cross the boundary will be shot. The guards are afraid of being infected. The food is provided at irregular intervals and soon the food served is scarcely sufficient for the ever growing number of occupants in the blind wards. A group steals all the food and hides in their ward. The group develops authority over food and demand valuables in return for the supply of food. The demand for valuable then shifts for demand for women. The women are destroyed. The doctor’s wife goes with another set of women and kills the leader of the pack. Then the rival groups breaks into fight. People are killed and buried. A woman sets fire on the asylum. The group led by the doctor’s wife escapes the asylum and encounters the barren city. The blind people are guided by the doctor’s to her house, to the house of the girl with the dark glasses. The doctor’s wife takes food from an underground store that is forsaken by the other blind people. Every shop is looted; every house is broken and taken possession of; the river of filth flowing all over the city. People eat anything they can lay their dirty hands on. The group led by the doctor’s wife stays in her house. After a few more days of struggling the eyesight comes back to everyone leaving them bewildered as to why in the first place they had to lose their sight. The doctor’s wife stands gazing through window, wondering whether that was her turn to lose sight.
After the initial tussle, the novel seized me and took me along with it. It was indeed an incredible journey I have undertaken by reading Blindness. I could not wait to read the other novels of Jose Saramago, which I don’t think of even as a distant possibility.