Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Blindness" by José Saramago

Year of publication: 1995
Genre: fiction, magical realism, allegorical novel, dystopian novel
Setting and time: unknown country and unknown era, but most likely present time
Themes: fear, illness, life, violence, surviving, society, modernity

About the author: José Saramago was born in 1922 in Portugal. He won international acclaim only in the 1980s with Baltasar and Blimunda (Memorial do Convento in Portuguese). He has been a member of the Portuguese Communist Party since 1969, as well as an atheist and self-described pessimist. His ideas have aroused controversy, especially for the representation of Jesus Christ in his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991). This book re-imagines the life of Christ, using the events described in the gospels to create his personal version of the life of Jesus. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) Saramago describes one year in the life of one of the many heteronyms used by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Saramago’s novels often have fantastic scenarios and deal with empathy for human condition and for the isolation of contemporary urban life. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998.

Plot: In an unnamed city in an unnamed country, a man sitting in his car waiting for a traffic light to change is suddenly struck blind. A Good Samaritan offers to drive him home (and later steals his car); his wife takes him by taxi to a nearby eye clinic where they are ushered past other patients into the doctor's office. Within a day the man's wife, the taxi driver, the doctor and his patients, and the car thief have all succumbed to blindness. As the epidemic spreads, the government panics and begins quarantining victims in an abandoned mental asylum--guarded by soldiers with orders to shoot anyone who tries to escape.

Some thoughts: I’ve read that this is considered one of the best European novels of the last 20 or 30 years, but honestly I’ve found it a bit disappointing. I was expecting something more from a Nobel Prize Winner and Portugal’s most famous writer, but expectations can spoil the best book ever written. I know that film director Fernando Meirelles (the wonderful City of God and The Constant Gardener, anyone?) made a movie out of it, starring Julianne Moore (as the doctor’s wife, I suppose).
Very briefly, this is the story of the total breakdown of society following a natural disaster, an unexplained epidemic of blindness that affects an entire city (or nation, it’s not clear). People start committing every sort of despicable actions, but are also capable of acts of generosity unheard of before the epidemic.
It has been done other times before: from Lord of the Flies to the Big Brother, it is no great news that in a hostile environment when your life is at stake, people become animals and lose their humanity. This novel has been compared with Albert Camus’ s The Plague and P.D. James’s The Children of Men, despite the fact that Blindness is not science fiction and it is not really about epidemics. By the end of the novel, you get the impression that Saramago wanted to tell us something more. Blindness is maybe a metaphor for the horrors of modernity and for the loss of the meaning of life in our chaotic cities. I didn’t fully understand the end of the novel: were they really blind or not? And why did they regain their sight? Probably this has no importance, but I was expecting some sort of explanation, even vague or ambiguous. This might have helped me make sense of the story or it might have spoiled it, I don’t know. This reminds me of some short stories by Cortazar and Borges, not only for the aura of magical realism, but also for the perplexity and bafflement I perceived at the end of the novel.
What may scare some readers is Saramago’s style: the characters have no names and are addressed as ‘the woman with sunglasses’ or ‘the doctor’s wife’. In addition, there are no quotation marks to delimit dialogues in his novels, so it’s hard to understand who’s speaking. The punctuation is very scarce and the sentences very long, but Saramago’s prose is impeccable. Every sentence is beautifully written and powerful. In conclusion, well-written but difficult to interpret. Definitely your book if you like philosophy, allegories and open endings.


  1. Wow, w/ a plot idea like that it should have been a very good book. Too bad it didn't live up to expectations. I just reviewed a book that I also had high expectations for, but found it didn't quite capture me either.

  2. Maybe I should stop looking for the perfect book and appreciate what's good in every book I moderately enjoy... :)

  3. I love the Saramago books. Currently I am reading The Double. I own Seeing, which is like a sequel to Blindness.

    By the way, thanks for stopping by Moments in Literature.

  4. Emmanuel, thanks for visiting back!
    I'd like to read your thoughs on 'The Double'.