Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Blindness by José Saramago

Blindness by José Saramago 
Published: Harcourt, Inc. (1997)

The Book:

“In a nameless city, a nameless man goes blind.  His blindness is not ordinary—though his eyes appear completely healthy, his vision has become an impenetrable whiteness.  Very soon, it becomes clear that his blindness is contagious, as “white blindness” sweeps through the population. Desperate to keep the blindness from spreading, the man and other sufferers are quarantined in a mental hospital and guarded by soldiers. 

The only eyewitness to what will happen in that place is one woman, who carefully hides her unexplainable immunity in order to accompany her husband.  Removed as the victims now are from civilization and authority, they must find a way to establish their own community or risk falling into lives of unending brutality.” ~Allie

I read this novel loosely as a part of the Outside the Norm reading group (at WWEnd), which is not active at the moment.  I’m hoping for a revival in 2013!  Apparently, there is a movie of this novel as well, which I’ve heard is pretty good.  Lastly, I feel like I should include a trigger warning about this book, because it contains some disturbingly graphic sexual violence.

My Thoughts:

Since I’m unable to read Portuguese, all of my comments here relate to the English translation of the text.  I can’t compare the novel I read to the original, so I can’t guarantee that the stylistic quirks hold true in both languages. The English language version of Blindness employs an unusual grammatical structure, with no quotation marks to denote dialogue and a high amount of commas per sentence. The text is often composed of massive sentences with many clauses and lines of dialogue spliced together by commas. For a quick example of the style, here is a sentence taken from late in the novel (cut for brevity and spoiler prevention):

“The doctor’s wife had already guessed what the writer’s reply would be, You and your wife, like the friend who is with you, live in a flat, I imagine, Yes, in her flat in fact, Is it far away, Not really, Then, if you’ll permit me, I have a proposal to make… [~1 page of text]….I do not know braille, How can you write, then, asked the first blind man, Let me show you.” ~pages 232-233, one sentence

I’ve read some reviews that suggested this style was intended to immerse the reader in the confusion of blindness, but I’ve also heard that this is just Saramago’s preferred style of writing.  There are also no names used for any characters or locations.  People are referred to by characteristics, such as “the boy with the squint” or “the girl with the dark glasses”.  My guess was that this was meant to stress the universality  of the story, and to avoid pinning it down to a specific culture or region.  It might seem strange to refer to every character by a phrase rather than a name, but I didn’t think it interrupted the flow of the story.  With the strange grammar and nameless characters, I did not find this to be an effortless read, but I don’t think that the content of the novel was ever obscured by its presentation.

The main science fictional element of the novel is the mysterious illness that topples civilization, ‘white blindness’.  However, the physical origin of the white blindness is not explored, and the story focuses almost entirely on its disastrous effects.  The real point of the blindness is as a tool to explore human nature and the fragility of civilization.  Basically, Blindness tells a similar kind of story to Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but with adults and children living in the wreckage of their own civilization. 

While the characters actions are important in the sense of portraying various aspects of human nature, they were not really very deeply developed.  Perhaps the most interesting character is the one who emerges as the leader of the group.  She is the one sighted woman,  who observes all these atrocities and reacts to them with an initially frustrating passivity.  It brings up the question of how much horror one person has to witness and experience before they are willing to take an action that might risk their personal well-being.  Rather than developing individual characters, the novel seemed more focused on observing how many different people abandoned or embraced their humanity when faced with personal blindness and the loss of the infrastructure of their society.

Due to apparent lack of accountability brought about by the changes in their world, many people begin to act out their worst impulses. This leads to some of the more disturbing parts of the book, which include violence, rape, and large amounts of human waste.  The various characters’ reactions to these things are also sometimes quite painful to read. The story does not have a completely bleak view of humanity, however.  The central group, formed mostly of the first to be struck blind, continues to attempt to hold together their small community, despite all the hardships they face.  I think that examination of the motivations and actions of the various characters could lead to a lot of interesting discussion.

My Rating: 4.5/5

In this short review, there’s no way I can even mention all the topics that would make this an interesting book for discussion.  It’s definitely not light reading, both due to the unusual writing style and the disturbingly graphic content.  The white blindness, as an illness, is never much explained, but it is used as a tool to examine how many different people would react to finding themselves in the world the blindness created.  It did not explore only the negative, but also the positive, as some of the survivors struggled to preserve at least their small community.  I’m glad I ended up reading Blindness, and now I’m really curious to see how well the English film represented the novel.    


  1. I'm disappointed I missed out on this one. This looks really interesting though the last book I read with a similar writing style (Requiem for a Dream), I don't think I finished and that little blurb looks like it could get a bit tough to slog through.

  2. It was never actually discussed in the WWEnd forum, so if you end up reading it at some point and want to start up a discussion thread, I'm game :). The writing style was pretty tough for me to get through, but I do think the details of the story (who's talking, etc.) were pretty clear from context. I've never read "Requiem for a Dream", though I did watch the movie. I think the combination of a similar writing style and the incredibly depressing content might be too much for me.

    For a more poetic example of the style, since the above quote was mostly to show how dialogue strings together, here's a segment from page 222:

    "It was a restless night. Vague in the beginning, and imprecise, the dreams went from sleeper to sleeper, they lingered here, they lingered there, they brought with them new memories, new secrets, new desires, that is why the sleepers sighed and murmured, This dream is not mine, they said, but the dream replied, You do not yet know your dreams... [cut for character details]... in this way he thought he knew who she was, he merely thought he did, it is not enough for dreams to be reciprocal in order to be the same."

    1. This is making me even more interested in how the movie is...

  3. This is my favorite among the Outside the Norm reading.

    1. It's my favorite as well, though I have only read two books from the Outside the Norm reading so far!