Whiteness is all
BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago, trs Giovanni Pontiero, Harvill pounds 14.99
Sunday 09 November 1997
Saramago's novel takes a bleak and didactic view. It begins in traffic: the lights change and a car remains stationary - the driver has gone blind, seeing only "whiteness". Panicked, he lets himself be escorted home by a stranger. He can't get his key in the door, he spills a vase of flowers, he cuts himself. Meanwhile the "good" stranger pops back to steal the blind man's car - then goes blind himself.
The eye doctor is baffled. The man's eyes are fine: it's just that he cannot see. Disturbed by a phenomenon his science cannot explain, the doctor gets up in the night to consult a textbook - and goes blind. Two more of his patients wake to whiteness. Is it catching? The chaos has begun.
The government - faceless, harsh, megaphone-using - panics. The blind and infected are rounded up and placed in a disused lunatic asylum, surrounded by armed guards. Food is provided, but they must bury their own dead. Hundreds are now in the asylum. Only one, the doctor's wife, can still see. She faked blindness so that she could go with her husband, and through her eyes we witness the ensuing degradation and catastrophe - helpless people, desperate for food, navigating corridors slimy with excrement. Dignity is short and tempers are shorter. Soon a group of (blind) hoodlums dominate the food supply, using randomly fired bullets to demand compliance and herding the women in for gang rape.
The doctor's wife, picking her way through the debris, begins to wish she was actually blind. Without witnesses, conscience and morality lose their purpose and evaporate. The eye doctor crawls into bed with someone else - contact is all - and his wife almost understands.
This, then, is society gone bad and mad: a parable of loss and disorientation, of man's worst appetites and most hopeless weaknesses. Saramago is an emphatic, impassioned writer and this is a bold piece of work - almost biblical in scale and style, dauntingly sustained. His prose takes risks and is syntactically daring. He mixes tenses within a single sentence and, with barely any punctuation or paragraph breaks, the speech of one character flows into the speech of another, conjuring up linguistic blindness as the sentences grope and tumble their way across the page.
But - and it's a big but - despite all these terrors and losses, these are not real people. To be fair, they're not meant to be. Deliberately, the author writes impersonally, symbolically: this is a novel of ideas, its puppet protagonists glimpsed through the wrong end of a cliche - characterless, faceless, nameless, referred to only by gender and profession or a single trait. We have little or no sense of their lives, their past, their relationships, their loss.
I was numbed and intimidated by this stark, dark, bully of a novel - respectful of the ferocity of its writing, but ultimately irritated by its crowing sense of its own importance. Give me something to hold on to, I wanted to cry. Give me a reason to care. But there was one moment: the doctor's wife discovers a (nameless, faceless) couple making desperate love in the corridor. Maybe, she thinks, they're lovers who "had gone to the cinema and turned blind there". And that was enough - just that one concession to a normal, past life made this couple real and sad.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 4 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
- 5 Refugee crisis: Aylan's life was full of fear - in death, he is part of 'humanity washed ashore'
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
First Look at Bryan Cranston transformed into LBJ for HBO’s ‘All the Way’ film
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
This little boy loves books so much that he cries when his mother stops reading to him
Prog rock finally comes of age with launch of the first Official Progressive Chart
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 100,000 back our campaign
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up