Friday, May 1, 2009


I just finished reading the novel Blindness by Jose Saramago. If anyone wants to read this book and cares about things being ruined, I will only give away the basic plot, and not too much more.

This book was amazing. Not the best thing I've ever read, but it was poignant, interesting horrifying, and well written. It was originally written in Portuguese and the translator died before she finished so it's possible a little was lost in translation, but I don't think so. The plot centers around an epidemic of blindness that comes over an unnamed city (or country, or the world - we're never really sure). It traces this epidemic from the first person who on the first page is driving to work and all of a sudden cannot see. This blindness is not like any other. Instead of seeing all black, there is a milky whiteness that the infected can see. He causes a traffic jam and someone comes to help drive him home. This person becomes the second person infected. The first blind man then goes to a doctor's office and he infects everyone in that office including the doctor himself. All this happens in the first 20 pages. What happens next is where it gets more interesting. The government decides to quarantine those that are blind in an abandoned mental institution and everyone who may be infected in another wing with the army guarding over them. The majority of the book takes place in this ward and how the blind people live. I will not go into any more detail, but I will say this: This book is an amazing study on human character and morality. What do people do when everything they've ever known is gone? The book is interesting and at times very difficult to read (There is 1 chapter specifically that was possibly one of the most fucked up things I have ever read. And go back and look at my book list, I've read some fucked up stuff in my day.)

A little comment on the writing style since that is a huge part of what makes this book as amazing as it is. First of all, the author never tells you anyone's name. They are referred to as how a blind person would understand them. To hear someone called Mike or Theresa would change the story. Instead the characters are referred to as who they are: The first blind man, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the doctor, the man with the eye patch. It is a strange technique but it is explained in the book why. Who they were in their old life does not matter anymore. They are blind, quarantined, infected people. What they did before and who they are no longer matters. It is who they are and become after that matters.
Also, the book is written in a style of minimal paragraph and chapter breaks. When people are talking, there are no quotation marks or paragraph breaks, or even periods to change sentences. A typical sentence will look like this:
Where are we going to go, I don't know, she should decide, we will go to the left corner.
In that sentence it could have been 2 people talking or 4, sometimes you are not 100% sure but this technique makes you a little bit on edge where you can see things from the character's point of view of being completely confused by your surroundings. It is really well done, and although you may be confused at times, I found I was able to follow most of the book and I definitely could follow the story. Some details will slip through the cracks, but that's OK.
Also, the book is so cramped with words on a single page that in the beginning it had a very interesting effect on me. As I was reading, I could read fine, but because of the subject matter I found my peripheral vision to become blurred. I could read the line I was reading fine, but all the rest of the words seemed to blur where the white of the page became overpowering and I could almost see what that "white-blindness" would look like to someone and it was frightening. It is like if you read the word yawn. Without thinking of it, you see the word yawn and all of a sudden you feel the need to yawn. I'll be at least 60% of you just yawned or are having a feeling that you need to yawn. (I kind of have it just by writing this). It is a completely subliminal thing, but effective. I'm not sure if this was done on purpose by the author or not, but I found it quite interesting and felt I should comment.

This book at times reminded me of the book The Road by Cormac McCarthy. That was another post-apocalyptic story but that was only the aftermath. I did not enjoy that book though. In my opinion, Blindness is the exact opposite of that. The Road followed a very minimalist approach of few words on a page and they hoped that saying less would say more to the reader. Blindness tells as much as they can, but in a world that is inhabited by all blind people, you of course will miss a lot of the details.

For anyone that enjoys reading stories that talk about humanity and what it means, I would recommend this. You may not like everything you read, but it is well worth the effort.

No comments: