Whiteness is all

BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago, trs Giovanni Pontiero, Harvill pounds 14.99

Who hasn't at some time closed their eyes, stretched out their hands and - safe from the reality - played with the fear of going blind? But how many of us have imagined thousands blinded at once? How would we cope with an epidemic of blindness?

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.

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