Wednesday's Book: Blindness by Jose Saramago

Sight is the sense we most fear losing. To create a world with an inexplicable pandemic of blindness, as Portugal's leading novelist Jose Saramago does in this novel, is to play with one of our deepest preoccupations.

By the time the measures vainly attempted by the authorities are exhausted, the entire human population - bar one woman, wife of the ophthalmologist who first diagnosed the contagion - is blind. The loss of control is therefore total. There is no expertise, no hierarchy, no politics, no electricity, no water. In such a world, nothing can be assumed. Garbage and sewage collect on the streets and food supplies are endlessly fought over. Under these extreme circumstances, Saramago asks: what constitutes a human being?

His central characters are as anonymous as those in a Becket play: "the man who first went blind"; "the boy with a squint". Initially connected by the coincidence of attending the ophthalmologist's surgery, they become quarantined in a former asylum. But instead of entering the hell of Sartre's Huis Clos, they enter one that has been imposed by the savagery of their military wardens and the gangs of thugs who terrorise the wards.

Their attempts to elect spokespersons give way to a more integrated kind of democracy, in which each has a voice and must be heard. Ironically, the one sighted woman acts less as a leader than as a servant, endlessly taking measures to safeguard the rest. This involves her in both saving and taking lives, performing both menial tasks and desperate acts.

The novel draws upon a resonant literary history of blindness, from biblical contrasts with the light within to familiar proverbs. But, since this is a work by Saramago, paradox is the order of the day. Only those who are seen can see; the doctor's wife loses her sense of sight, as she loses her sense of identity.

Other Saramago characteristics are also heavily present. A "dog of tears", Charon-like, guides the wanderers through the hell of persecution, for life and art are alike a journey. Then there is a writer who cannot cease writing, even though he cannot read his own words. Saramago is a past master at creating societies so suddenly traumatised that they have to discover again what living together can mean. The sense of dislocation in his work is enhanced by our not knowing any of the "when, where, who and why" questions that concern journalists and editors (as Saramago was, in a previous career). Having dispensed with continuity and plot, his books are free to explore philosophical issues. His characters work through the alterations that afflictions and restrictions bring to our sense of humanity, and ponder what happens "when we are all equal regarding good and evil". Finally, it is only by finding the right questions that we may receive the right answers. Saramago repeatedly undertakes to unite the pressing demands of the present with an unfolding vision of the future. This is his most apocalyptic, and most optimistic, version of that project yet.

Translated by Giovanni Pontiero, with revisions by Margaret Jull Costa. Harvill Press, pounds 8.99

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Foundation Phase Teacher required

    £90 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Exciting opputunities availabl...

    Learning Support Assistant

    £65 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Due to the continual growth and...

    Learning Support Assistant - Newport

    £65 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Due to the continual growth and...

    Operations Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently recruiting for an Operati...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz