July 31, 2007
Jose Saramago's "Blindness" - An Eye-Opener?
What happens when a group of idividuals suddenly go blind, and that is just the beginning of the problem; this 'white blindness' is extremely contagious, and within days there are hundreds more who get infected by it! Those in power, take desperate measures to contain this epidemic; alas, it's only a matter of time before the entire city and perhaps a whole country is under seige in Portugese writer Jose Saramago's novel 'Blindness'.
Jose Saramago is a Nobel Laureate, the first ever from Portugal, who received attention in the USA only after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. However, he's recognized as one of the greatest literary voices writing out of Europe today. 'Blindness' was originally written in Portugese and translated into English by Giovanni Pontiero. The setting of the novel is unknown; it could be just any city, in any country in the second half of the twentieth century, and this is perhaps what lends universality to any underlying theme that Saramago may have had in mind. Many readers and critics have drawn parrallels between this novel and Camus 'The Plague'; both deal with an epidemic that afflicts an area, and how the residents thereafter cope with their changed circumstances. However, Saramago's depiction of the epidemic has a poignance and depth that brings home the horror and the helplessness of the victims in a way that Camus plague doesn't. The 'white blindness' drags in the reader, feet and soul, into it's bog like claustrophobia. The squalor, the stench, the shit-laden corridors are as real for the reader as they are for the blinded who are living those conditions.
In addition to the realism of Saramago, it is also his writing style that makes him so unique. There is absolute fluidity so far as the construction of the novel is concerned. There are no quotation marks or paragraph indentations to prepare the reader for dialogues. At the outset the reader is clouded in a maze of sentences trying to figure out dialogues from narrative. This possibly was a perfect fit for the metaphor of "Blindness' that Saramago may have had in mind; all boundaries and distinctions, be they those of sight or of language, were to be fading and mingling into one another. The lack of clarity may have been a purposeful ploy of this master writer. Just as the onset of blindness caused individuals to seek solace and meaning in the collective, so would the uniformity of the language structure force the reader to find his own meaning to this novel set in an undefined location. To quote Preto- Rodas on Saramago's extraordinary style, "Gone are the usual distinctions involving narrative, description, and dialogue. . . . The result . . . is unsettling as the reader opens to pages filled with lines of unbroken print. One may even lose one's way in the absence of capital letters, punctuation marks, and paragraph indentation."
There is so much a reader can make of this novel that it could fill up pages; there are a string of questions that one would like to ask of Saramago to figure out what he intended the novel to convey. It is credit to his craftsmanship that these unanswered questions only serve to enhance reader interest and to make 'Blindness' a gripping read. There are several profound lines in the novel that the reader often interprets as the author's voice surfacing, but alas, Saramago gives no definitive or qualifying narrative that could pin him down. He simply provides a vision into a world descending into anarchy due to an inexplicable physical epidemic, and where a small group of people coping with this changed situation.
It's noteworthy that Saramago begins this novel with an epigram to blindness that reads :
"If you can see, look. If you can look, observe".
However, 'see', 'look', or 'observe'; read it you must! A classic no doubt!