Review: Blindness; Jose Saramago

“I can’t believe this is happening. It’s against all the rules of humanity.”  (4 stars)

Source- personal copy

Published in 2005 by Vintage Classics

I read the paperback edition which is 309 pages. 

After an unexplained epidemic of blindness strikes down the inhabitants of an unnamed city, mass social breakdown quickly ensues and amidst the chaos and terror, those affected are quarantined in empty mental asylums so as not to infect others. This dystopian novel follows the lives of a handful of those inhabitants, many of whom are the first to be afflicted by this unfortunate outbreak. 

Blindness was a strange, albeit thought-provoking read, though it’s easy to see why opinion is so divided on it and it is indeed something of a slow-burning tale. I must confess that although I enjoyed this novel, it is certainly the type of book that I read with a bit of a wince on my face throughout, wondering exactly why it was so readable. On the face of it, the complete lack of parenthesis, its confusing run-on sentences, not to mention the graphic descriptions of bodily functions, added quite a coarse tone to the story, yet it was still an incredibly engaging read with characters I wanted to know more about. I wanted to know if they would get through their experiences unscathed and more to the point, what on earth had caused the epidemic in the first place. The premise was certainly an intriguing one. How would anyone react if their ability to see was suddenly taken from them? Would people band together to try and survive or would everything suddenly become an issue of self-preservation? 

At first, the lack of speech marks and run-on sentences in this book bothered me somewhat; it took a little bit of getting used to and was confusing and slightly disorientating, hence I struggled to get into the story initially. I was never really sure whose voice was whose- though I did appreciate this obscurity as a device that allowed the reader to empathise with the blind characters and in that respect, it worked beautifully. That, along with the blatant lack of any character names and the fact that no places or even the city itself were identified, also enabled the reader to feel somewhat ‘in the dark’ too. As opposed to the usual descriptions of people and places, in this book the author relies more on depictions of smells and sounds to guide the characters (and reader) through the story. It is a somewhat unusual experiment in sensory writing, to say the least and was something of a contradiction in terms. 

A few bits of the novel freaked me out slightly. Without risk of wanting to give away any spoilers, I was disturbed by some of the misogyny and violence towards the middle of the book. It didn’t read in a glorified fashion but was all the more troubling for the matter of fact way in which it was imparted. That said, once society’s downfall commences, it is only a matter of time before such things become sadly all too commonplace. I think in these parts of the novel, Saramago does a good job in challenging the reader as to how we too would behave in such a nightmarish situation and showing how people can return to their baser instincts. The government’s response to the scenario was certainly chilling, and their concise list of ways in dealing with those quarantined in the hotel had Orwellian echoes to it. 

Some other aspects of the storyline bothered me; I did have to suspend my disbelief at the way people initially reacted to the epidemic- particularly the government and medical community. When the small group of sufferers were also shipped to the abandoned asylum at the start of the story, I also felt that this part of the plot dragged somewhat. I wanted to know more about what was happening on the outside, whereas these facets of the story had more of an insular focus. The characters were also pretty flat for the majority of the story, though again I’m not sure if this is a deliberate ploy on the author’s part or not.   

The ending, I’m perhaps undecided on; hence the four stars. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything but I didn’t quite receive the answers I was hoping for. Saramago has written a follow-up novel to Blindness, which I’m undecided as to whether I want to read or not, as I’m not sure if it may tarnish this one. After trawling through pages of blood, semen and excrement in here (yes really), it’s also safe to say that I will never watch the movie! 

Though admittedly very bleak, Blindness is a fascinating look at human behaviour and instinct. It is a story of survival and oppression and of the darkness that can reside within us all.

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