One man goes blind for no reason and the contagion quickly envelops a country. The story follows the fortunes of a doctor’s wife who can see but fakes blindness to accompany her husband to a quarantine centre where their little group tries to survive first the institutionalised anarchy of the blind prison and later in a city that has abruptly come to a stop.
How is it written?
Saramago is seen as the master of recent Portuguese fiction, but anyway he has that flat style that is typical of the country. Sentences run to paragraphs, with commas replacing standard punctuation, switching between different character’s perspective and direct speech within the paragraph. In translation, at least, verb tenses get mixed up between present and past – presumably this is deliberate. You quickly realise this is Literature, since no character is named – they are identified by how we first see them (e.g. the woman with the dark glasses, and the dog of tears). If this sounds daunting, it is fair to say that 300+ pages fly by and the book is a page-turner.
Why should I read it?
Some readers might dismiss this book as a pretentious foreign language version of “Day of the Triffids” (John Wyndham). ’Blindness’ can be enjoyed as a simple story, engagingly written (somewhat in the manner of the Portuguese cult classic of Pessoa “The Book of Disquiet” which I ploughed through with an increasingly disquieting sensation that I was wasting my time reading style over self-indulgent absence of substance). At least with Saramago, stuff happens. Obviously, the underlying theme is human interrelation; and more, decency and what it may demand of us in a situation where all the established rules of society are thrown over when life, which we normally take for granted reveals it’s fragility. In this respect, a work very much like Albert Camus’ “The Plague” which has existential baggage that is more overt, but reaches similar conclusions. The visceral details make this an Iberian “The Road” (Cormac McCarthy) but Saramago is a more hopeful writer, whose sense of humour keeps poking through.