Earlier this year, I discovered Jose Saramago for the first time and lamented the fact that it had taken me so long to find him. Well, now that I’ve read Blindness, I must confess that I’ve become a bit of a crazy fan girl. This book was even better than The Double, more riveting, more disturbing, more beautiful, more everything.
In the opening chapter of the novel, a man is sitting in traffic at a stop light. When the light turns green, he doesn’t move. Horns blare, drivers get out of their cars, and the man cries out, I am blind.
Who would have believed it. Seen merely at a glance, the man’s eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, his eyebrows suddenly screwed up, all this, as anyone can see, signifies that he is distraught with anguish. With a rapid movement, what was in sight has disappeared behind the man’s clenched fists, as if he were still trying to retain inside his mind the final image captured, a round red light at the traffic lights.
This sudden attack of blindess, known as the white sickness, because its victims see only white, is the start of an epidemic. The government rounds up the blind and the contaminated (those who have been exposed to the blind) and places them in an abandoned mental asylum in an attempt to contain the spread of the affliction.
Only one person seems immune, the wife of the ophthalmologist whom the first blind man goes to for treatment. She pretends to be blind so that she can accompany her husband to the quarantine. It is through her eyes that we see the horrors the blind experience. And it is through her compassion and her courage that a small group of the afflicted manage to survive with their humanity intact.
The horrors depicted here are some of the worst I can recall reading about in fiction. The dehumanizing conditions in the asylum where the blind are left brings out the worst in many of them. The chapter immediately after one faction of the blind take control of the limited rations and demand that the others send them their women was almost too much for me (and I read Stephen King). But the horror makes the moments of grace stand out all the more. Glasses of water drunk from crystal glasses, a mysterious hand that washes an old man’s back, a dog that dries a woman’s tears—all of these things take on a beauty that brought tears to my eyes. Saramago has managed the trick of depicting the truly horrible and the truly beautiful without weakening the impact of either. I’m eager to see what else he can do.
Because Saramago is a Nobel prize winner, this book qualifies for the Book Awards II challenge, so I’m at 6 down, 4 to go.