Two Visions of Blindness by Jose Saramago

This week Sandy Nawrot of You’ve GOTTA Read This announced her retirement from book blogging to pursue other  interests.  Sandy found my blog back when she first started, said hello and then found herself involved in a bunch of crazy little projects.  So to celebrate her retirement, I thought I’d run one of our collaborations, this one done for Book Blogger Appreciation Week back in 2009. 

I wanted to do something out of the ordinary for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Sandy Nawrot of You’ve GOTTA Read this has done several guest posts for Ready When You Are, C.B. over the past year.  I’ve done one for her blog as well. So I suggested we try doing a tandem book review. We each read Blindness by Jose Saramago, since it was on both of our TBR shelves anyway, and had an email discussion about the book which we immediately compared to the recent film adaptation. The book conversation is below, the movie conversation is over at Sandy’s site. Both published today at the exact same time in celebration of Book Bloggers Appreciation Week.

James: Let’s start with the source of the blindness. It starts mysteriously and seems to spread like a virus from one person to another. Saramago never tells us where it comes from; the characters in the book don’t know either. I guess a religious person might see it as a punishment from God, but I don’t remember this line of reasoning discussed in the book. Mass blindness is not an unusual idea, almost everyone on earth goes blind in John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids for example and I just know this happened on Start Trek at least once.

Saramago is more interested in how universal blindness affects the world than he is in what caused it or in how to cure it. It’s very similar to P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men which looks at what the world would be like if no one had anymore children. But Blindness is a story of individual survival. How could the individual survive in a world gone blind? He can’t. So how will the characters adapt to a situation with no happy ending possible? How long can they remain civil? These are the questions I think Saramago is interested in exploring. He does not appear to have a high opinion of civilized man.

Sandy: I must admit, I like explanations, but wasn’t going to get any with this story. To me, it had a definite feel of Stephen King. Sort of a supernatural, you’re-not-meant-to-understand-so-just-go-with-it kind of plot. Personally, though? To satisfy my need for answers, I am choosing to believe that this is a warning, or lesson from God. Like the flood. A comment is made later in the book (I can’t seem to find the quote), a realization, that when they COULD see, they were still blind – they saw without seeing. It implies that there are lessons to be learned from the sins of the past. The jury is out on whether they will move forward and actually learn from their mistakes or not. What do you think? 

This also brings up the question…why did one woman NOT lose her sight? Am I not meant to have an answer for that one either? Is she supposed to bear witness, and use it to lead the masses down a higher path? 

You are absolutely right, we see first-hand what Saramago thinks of man, and it isn’t good. What the blindness does is strip away all the layers of decency and dignity and reduce us to animals, fighting to survive. I found myself thoroughly horrified at how quickly everything disintegrated. The infected immediately abandoned hygiene and modesty, and the strong (aka the ones with the weapons) take what they want and dominate the weak. I imagine it wasn’t so different back in the stone age. It causes me to look inward, and ask myself a few questions. Would I maintain my dignity in this scenario? If I were forced to choose between eating and succumbing to the criminals, what would I do? Would I have the courage to fight back?

James: You raise two good points here: what is the moral purpose of the blindness epidemic and how would the reader behave in this situation? The two are closely tied. Once the blindness epidemic is over, the survivors will have to face what they did to survive. There’s going to be a lot of survivor guilt.

While reading Blindness, especially the section in the hospital, I kept thinking back to Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. The way the concentration camps were run is reflected in the way the hospital culture developed. In the camps, a select group of prisoners were put in charge of everyone else and ruled through brute force. Frankel describes them as often more vicious than the actual guards were. In their defense, the capos did what they thought they had to do in order to survive. The thugs who rule the hospital where the blind are quarantined do the same, they become much more vicious than the capos ever did, but they are trying to survive, too. Reader’s can’t help but wonder what they would do in this situation. Would they cause others to suffer in order to ensure their own survival?

Frankel described people in the concentration camps who acted selflessly and generously towards other prisoner in his book. In Blindness there is a core group of characters who look out for each other and the doctor’s wife who can see but chooses to go with her husband. She has historic parallels with the concentration camps as well; there were people who chose to follow their loved ones to the camps.

I can see the first part of Blindness as an allegory for the concentration camps. The hospital becomes more like a camp as time passes and more and more people are imprisoned there. Things change in the second half when the hospital burns down. Instead of becoming free like the camp survivors did, the blind patients enter a larger prison/world.

Sandy: You know, when I spoke of the people in charge with the weapons, I wasn’t even thinking of the guards. You are right, they were just doing their jobs, albeit a little trigger-happy. I am actually hung up on the thugs. I find it interesting, almost like observing an experiment, how in just about any stressful or chaotic situation, the most brutal rise to the top and assert themselves. I’d like to say it is survival of the fittest, but I’m not sure I like that thought. I can’t seem to get past the idea of having sex with vulgar, stinky thugs for food. While my husband would stand by and say that I would probably do anything for food, I’m not sure I would do THAT. Unless my kids were starving. 

I like your parallel to concentration camps, which is basically what we have in the first half of the story. You probably also remember from Man’s Search for Meaning that when camp victims were eventually liberated, they had severe difficulties in adapting to the free world. The victims became angry and lashed out at the injustice of their imprisonment, plus, as you said, they have survivor’s guilt. So I maintain that if we were allowed to expand on a sequel to Blindness, we would see a lot of really serious dysfunction and chaos. If it was God trying to prove a point, I don’t think the point would be well-taken and lessons not learned. 

On a different subject, I wanted to bring up the topic of the prose in this novel. Very different, huh? Sort of stream of consciousness, almost like Cormac MacCarthy. I bet Saramago’s middle school literature teacher is rolling over in his or her grave. It was hard to read at first, but I became so engrossed in the horror of the story, I stopped noticing the quirky, run-on sentences and entwined dialogue.

James: It’s hard for me to judge the prose since I’m reading the book in translation. I’m just going to assume that it is a faithful translation, but the book is better in the original, and say what I want to say. After a short while I got used to the prose, the way Saramago intertwines the dialogue with the narrative without using standard punctuation and line breaks. But to be honest I don’t think it added to my reading experience. I felt he used too many literary devices when just telling the story would have done the job. Why make things harder on your readers; the book’s material must send enough people heading for the hills as it is. I didn’t like the fact that the characters are unnamed either. It just defied logic a little too much for me. In a world full of blind people knowing each others names will probably come in pretty handy. And that so many of the core group is identified by eyes–the eye-doctor, the girl with dark glasses, the man with the eye-patch–struck me as a little precious. This also leaves the only sighted person being identified as “the doctor’s wife” which got on my nerves. Why can’t the doctor be “the seeing woman’s husband”? I read the first page of the new sequel, Seeing, in the back of my edition. The dog of tears has a name, but she’s still “the doctor’s wife.”

Sandy: See, while the twisted, intermingled sentences were different and required some brain-tweaks, I thought it DID add to the book. To me, it made me FEEL the chaos. It implied that people were talking over each other, in a rush of panic and confusion, which I imagine would be pretty close to reality. I guess I did not view it as a literary device. What I DID see as a hokey device was the lack of names. I understand the author is trying to emphasize that when you are blind, names aren’t important, but like you said, the references (the boy with the squint, the girl with the dark glasses) required sight to identify. So unless you were the doctor’s wife, it made no sense at all. It didn’t bother me so much, it just didn’t add. 

Overall, this was an intense, disturbing but satisfying read for me. I generally don’t like gentle or predictable, and this was far from that. I’m a student of Stephen King, which has prepared me to embrace the cataclysmic collapse of society and dignity of mankind in literature. I like to have my nose rubbed in the fact that we are precariously balancing between civilized and animal behavior. It keeps me humble! Out of five stars, I’d give it a 4.5.

James: You make a very good point about feeling the chaos because of the prose style. And I guess it would be harder to identify who is talking if everyone was blind, the lack of standard punctuation does bring that home. I’ve read more Stephen King novels than an English Major should probably admit, too, which made reading Blindness easier for me than it probably is for many readers. That raises another set of issues for me: why does a book like this one help give an author a Nobel Prize for literature while a book like The Stand does not. (I would not rank The Stand as among Stephen King’s best work, by the way.) If forced to, I would say blindness is better than The Stand, but I would not give it a five out of five. I’m going to go with four out of five. I used to teach 5th grade math which includes fractions and decimals; I now avoid them whenever possible.

 

Too often, when someone retires from book blogging it’s viewed as kind of a defeat even by the person who is retiring.  I think this is wrong  of us.    We should celebrate  our career in book blogging the way we would a “real life” career.   In her time Sandy became one of the better known book bloggers, one who touched and inspired many readers.  I have quite a few little projects at my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., that I’ll be moving over here as time goes one.  Each one of them terrific.  She was always fun to work with.  Sandy, I had a blast, especially with those little animated debates.

So I raise my glass, ‘Lunatic’ red wine just 4.99 at Grocery Outlet, and salute a job well done.  Didn’t we sound smart in this review and don’t we look cute in those pictures from 2009. 😉

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6 Comments

  1. Thanks for this James, I’ve been trying to read Blindness now for about a year, but can’t seem to get into it, but you’ve intrigued me. I’ll maybe put it on the 20 Books of Summer list for this year!

    1. While I have not pursued other books by Saramago, I do think this one is well worth reading.

  2. farmlanebooks says:

    This makes me sad. We were all such happy, youthful bloggers back then. Where did it all go wrong? I’ll miss Sandy’s posts. You are right to reinforce the point that Sandy hasn’t failed, but it doesn’t stop me mourning her loss to the blogging community. She had an amazing blogging career 🙂

    1. I’m not going to admit that anything went wrong at all. Some of us still blog, some of us retired and moved on to other things. A few of us become legends of a sort afterwards. Even if it hasn’t turned out to be quite what we expected or hoped for back when we started, I don’t think there’s any reason for regret. I have had a darn good time. 🙂

  3. jmutford says:

    I’ll settle for the 4/5 I guess, but it’s one of, if not my all-time, favourites. I loved and couldn’t agree more with Sandy’s comment about the style making readers appreciate the chaos.

    I questioned the book as a comment on globalization, how we (in the Western world) can exploit others in third world countries because we can’t see them. We’ll buy clothes and electronics, for instance, that we know, or at least strongly suspect, weren’t all made in the best of conditions, but somehow that evil doesn’t seem real because the victims are out of sight. Bit of a stretch perhaps, but once I latched onto that theory at about 2/3 of the way through, I enjoyed trying to fit Saramago’s details into the analogy.

    1. I’m going to agree that that is a bit of a stretch. But if it works for your reading, great. The thing is that almost everyone is blind, eventually. I can see how this idea works in the hospital where one group controls all the resources, but all of the people there are blind. After that, the entire world, but for one, is blind and all of them are scrambling for whatever they can find to stay alive.

      I think it works as a parable about what happens without civil authorities. What are things like if there is no societal control on anything.

      Still, it does produce a lot of discussion, as you can see.

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