104 of 107 people found the following review helpful
on January 8, 2000
It has already become a cliche to say that Saramago's 'Blindness' is a disturbing novel. However, that is really what it is--a disturbing novel. Why? Because it makes us ask if, indeed, we have to become blind to see the way things are and to understand what it means to be human. As one of the characters in the novel says: 'So num mundo de cegos as coisas serao o que verdadeiramente sao' ('Only in a world of blind people would things be what they truly are'). Another says: 'Dentro de nos ha una coisa que nao tem nome, essa coisa e o que somos' ('Inside us there is something that doesn't have a name, that something is what we are').
More than a novel, I see 'Blindness' as a disquisition on human values. Its title in Portuguese, 'Esaio sobre a cegueira' (literally, 'Essay on blindness'), gives us a clue as to what Saramago is up to in the novel. There are terrible acts of violence and beautiful acts of solidarity; there are jokes on the way we use our language, so centered in our sense of sight; there are asides among characters, revealing, in many instances, the need for companionship and, at the same time, the ultimatately unknowable nature of everyone next to us. In many ways, 'Blindness' is reminiscent of Sartre's play 'Huis clos'. In Sartre's play, our eyes represent the hell everybody has to live with because it is through them that we base our opinions of others, particularly those next to us; in Saramago's novel, our eyes interfere with our attempts to know things and each other better because we become so easily prejudiced by the looks of things and people. One dialogue between two of the characters close to the end of the novel--the old man with a band on one of his eyes and the girl with the dark glasses--exemplify this last point beautifully.
People complain that Saramago didn't do anything new in 'Blindness'. To be sure, the story of descent into darkness and pain and the knowledge obtained from the experience has been told too many times. However, Saramago deals with the subject in a very original way in his singular writing style. After so many centuries of writing, I guess that few, if any, subjects are left untouched under the sun. The true test of a good writer is to say things with a unique, personal voice, to depart from the masses and make us see our inconsistencies and absurdities in a creative yet familiar way. Saramago has accomplished that task convincingly with 'Blindness', and he deserves to be congratulated at least for his effort.
I originally read 'Blindness' in English. This second time, I read it in Portuguese. The English translation by Giovanni Pontiero (who, unfortunately, died while completing the job) is superb, keeping the idiosyncrasies and power of Saramago's original Portuguese. English readers will be delighted with the translation, and will definitely find considerable food for thought and discussion.
106 of 111 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2000
This novel is one of the best books that I have read all year. Saramago's concept of a world caught up in a disease of blindness was a brilliant one, but his accomplishments in making this event seem plausible are superior. The book's entire structure adds to the blind quality of the novel: The characters are unnamed, save for a vague moniker that breifly describes them (example: the girl with dark glasses, the old man with the black eye patch). The dialogue is unquoted and placed within the text, virtually unmarked. Chapters are unnamed, and the text is written in large, lengthy paragraphs, mimicking the fact that sensations would come with no breaks, that all would seem as one. The book's only downfall is its occasional difficulty. Though the prose is simply, elegantly written in a somewhat sparse style, its blocky format can be too much for some readers to handle at a time. As well, the unquoted, often unattributed dialogue can become confusing after a lengthy passage of conversation, as the reader is unable to tell who is speaking. Besides these minor pitfalls, this book truly resembles a modern retelling of many mythological stories, but with a tragically human bent that draws the readers in and makes them feel a part of the action. An excellent, thought-provoking read, worthy of any bibliophile's library. Enjoy.
196 of 219 people found the following review helpful
Blindness is my introduction to Saramago. A good friend at Amazon suggested this writer to me. Though he'd won a Nobel, I'd never heard of him, which comes as no surprise as I've read only about half the Nobel winners' and am totally in the dark when it comes to about 15 names on the list.
What strikes me most stongly about this book is the author's challenges he sets up for himself early on. As more and more characters are introduced, the challenge of keeping track of who is speaking and who is where mounts exponentially. I kept saying to myself "How's he going to do it when the wards fill up?" As noted throughout the reviews, Saramago does not provide us with the usual authorial roadmap.
What surprises me is that only one other reviewer (Michael Lima) mentioned that this stylistic maneuvering is a great metaphor for the subject matter. As readers, we are disoriented by the lack of accustomed punctuation, among other things. We have to pause sometimes to get our bearings. "Who said that?" we ask ourselves. It's exactly appropos to the way the blind characters react in the novel. Saramago wants the reader disoriented so that the empathy we feel for his characters becomes more pronounced. We share an awareness of what they are experiencing first-hand. We too have to grope our way in the dark, without the usual guideposts. The characters go unnamed. As one of the chracters thinks to himself,"names are of no importance here." We know them only as "the first blind man" or the "girl with dark glasses" or "the doctor's wife." One reviewer objected to this device, citing "the dog of tears" as an example of Saramago's ineptitude. I would counter that this is another intentional choice on Saramago's part to maintain the purity of his allegory. Characters in true allegory are never specified by common name. Just think of Spenser's "The Fairy Queen" or Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" and you'll see what I mean. Saramago's characters operate as universal types in large part because they are nameless.
Often, Saramago provides us with stunning imagery, as in this example when the opthalmologist first discovers he is blind: "He turned to where a mirror was, and this time he did not wonder, What's going on, he did not say, There are a thousand reasons why the human brain should close down, he simply stretched out his hands to touch the glass, he knew that his image was there watching him, his image could see him, he could not see his image."
My only criticisms of the work are minor. They usually have to do with suspension of disbelief. I had to wonder why the doctor's wife didn't seize the thug's gun for instance after he was down. Also, when she entered the basement of the store, why didn't she first get a flashlight? Certainly that wouldn't have been an item that would have been hard to find under the circumstances. I also had a bit of difficulty digesting some of Saramago's homilies and folksy philosophizing, as in "her fingers brushed against the dead petals, how fragile life is when it is abandoned," or later: "...but none of us, lamps, dogs or humans, knows at the outset, why we have come into this world." Not exactly the most profound material around.
I would also differ with those who maitain that the narrative is detached or distant. Sometimes I found it obtrusive, as in the narrator's description of a statement made by the girl with dark glasses: "...surprisingly, if we consider that we are dealing with a person without much education, the girl with the dark glasses said, Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are." I would hold that this is a pretty condescending remark, intimating that a person with little formal education can come up with anything resembling profundity (which by the way, it doesn't anyway). There may be a hint of sexism creeping in here as well.
Please do not, however, let these few quibbles put you off from reading the book. It really does belong in the modern classical cannon along with Kazanzakis, the writer he most reminds me of. I have ordered The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, both on the strength of my response to this book, and because it came even more highly recommended by my friend at Amazon. I'm really looking forward to reading it.
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2000
Jose Saramago presents us with an interesting premise: what if suddenly a society were to become spontaneously and absurdly sightless? How would people respond to each other? What would happen to the structure of the society? Would the powerful and those with weapons suddenly rule? Would the jungle of Thomas Hobbes, in which life is brutish, nasty and short, ultimately prevail? The beauty of the allegory is its stark truth and its reality. I was reminded of the plight of concentration camp prisoners and the people quarantined in The Plague by Camus. I sensed the influence of the existentialists here in works like No Exit by Sartre and the absurdity of Kafka also at play. The blind writer and the blindfolded religious icons intrigued me. I personally don't see such involuntary blindness as total but rather as blind spots. However, the premise of blindness, partial or absolute, diminishes the malevolence of the human condition. Ultimately, not only the realism and the skill with which the characters were drawn but the writer's optimism and redemption made this book really work for me. Saramago has shed new light on the human condition and for that he has made a mighty contribution to literature.This is a memorable and remarkable work -- I highly recommend this as a literary experience that will change your perception of your fellow man.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2001
"Blindness" is the first book I have ever read by Jose Saramago (how did I miss him? was I blind?), but I'm sure it won't be the last. And even though by almost all accounts the English translation is top-notch, I still wish that I could read "Blindness" in the original Portugese. For one thing, I know from reading books like Camus' "The Stranger" ("L'Etranger") and "The Plague" ("La Peste"), or Sartre's "No Exit" ("Huis Clos") - all books which "Blindness" calls to mind, by the way -- in English first, and then in the original French, that it makes a big difference whether you read the original or a translation, however well done. And in the case of "Blindness," I think it's particularly important because in Saramago's book, the use of language - the exact choice of words, nuanced meaning, punctuation, grammar, etc. -- is absolutely central. But, unfortunately, I cannot read Portugese, and in a way that seems appropriate for "Blindness," because in some sense it makes me partly "blind" and reliant on my guide (my "eyes"), the translator, who can see AND understand in both languages. And isn't that - seeing but not understanding -- what the book is at least partly about? To quote Saramago, "I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see."
Anyway, here are just a few thoughts, based on what I thought I was able to "see" - and hopefully understand - about this book. First, I agree with many of the reviewers here that Saramago's language/prose style in "Blindness" -- unquoted dialogue, unnamed characters, shifting tenses, limited punctuation, no chapter headings or numbers --at times can be confusing, even frustrating and uncomfortable. But, unlike some of these reviewers, I think this is a very clever and deft decision by Saramago, handled very well, and a perfect example of "form" matching "function." What better way to convey a sense of blindness than by making things difficult so that a reader finds himself navigating a passage, stumbling a little, doubling back, getting a little lost, then proceeding forward again? It seems to me that what is required in this situation is - just as if one were a blind person trying to find one's way down a street -- plenty of patience, and also concentration, and a belief that in the end, with luck and perserverance, the effort will be rewarded. Like Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" or James Joyce's "Ulysses," this is not an "easy" book in terms of language, but as in those books, it's perfectly appropriate and fitting for this Kafkaesque nightmare (i.e., "The Trial," "The Metamorphosis"), and actually now that I've read "Blindness" I can't imagine the book working better if it were written any other way!
Second, I also agree with many of the reviewers here that "Blindness" is not "easy" in an emotional sense either, with page after page of excrement, various varieties of violence (including rape and murder, among other things), all sorts of human degradation, plus a general, sometimes overwhelming feeling (reminiscent of accounts from the Nazi concentration camps) of disorientation and loss of morality, compassion, or anything positive for that matter. Thus we witness, once again in literature, the depths to which humans are capable of sinking once the "thin veneer of civilization" is stripped away. Is this an original topic? Not particularly. But is it a topic that has been exhausted, especially following what was arguably the bloodiest, nastiest century in human history? No, I don't think so! More importantly, does Saramago do a good job with this material? Yes, I think so!
Finally, it is important to emphasize that Saramago's "blindness" is not just the "normal" physical kind of blindness, but more a strange, metaphorical, allegorical, even spiritual kind. Statements like "we're blind because we're dead...we're dead because we're blind," "God does not deserve to see," "Only in a world of blind people would things be what they truly are," etc. all point in the direction of where Saramago is going here. Also, contrast the "normal" blind person, who becomes the thugs' bookkeeper; the ophthalmologist's wife (the book's fascinating central character), who can "see" but almost wishes she couldn't; the people who still can see but are terrified that they too will soon go blind; and the people already struck down with "white blindness."
In sum, this is very interesting, powerful material, well done by Nobel-prize winner Jose Saramago. I strongly recommend this haunting, thought-provoking book!
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2000
While I didn't care for the strange use of the English language, I do find Blindness to encompass the most wildly provacative and original premise I have yet to find. It is a novel of horror and far surpasses anything Stephen King or Clive Cussler has ever written. Blindness tells the tale of the breakdown of society and as it does, it shows us just how fragile that society really is. That something such as this could really happen only adds to the chilling tone of the tale. Saramago is certainly one of the most brilliant authors now writing and Blindness is a novel that would do any author credit. The translation is perfect and the novel loses nothing by not having been originally written in English. Highly recommended for those looking for something different, chilling and highly intellectual.
63 of 75 people found the following review helpful
Jose Saramago, Blindness (Harcourt Brace, 1995)
Over the years since its publication, Blindness has been hailed as a modern classic and made more ten-best lists than anyone not a CPA is going to be willing to count. And I guess I can understand why, but I was far less impressed with the book than most.
To be fair, that's probably because I'm more of a stickler for grammar. It's obvious that Saramago has a distinctive style in his writing, and one that caused people to latch onto this book in amazing numbers. But a big part of that style is run-on sentences, some of which last a whole paragraph (and some paragraphs in this book last more than a page). It's maddening. I also couldn't help comparing the style of writing, and always unfavorably, to that of Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy also has a distinctive style about his prose, and it's as clipped and rhythmic as Saramago's is lengthy and free-flowing. Which a reader will prefer is likely a matter of taste; I fall on the clipped and rhythmic side of the fence.
The story is a political allegory about an unspecified modern city where the residents (at least, the ones we see throughout) have been struck blind. (One wonders if Saramago is aware of Joe Frank's 1991 radio play Rent a Family, in which Arthur Miller spins such a scenario during a monologue.) Saramago weaves with a deft hand, and the messages under the surface never get to the point of hitting the reader over the head with a hammer. This is a refreshing change from most political fiction, even if, in order to do so, Saramago spends what seems an inordinate amount of tie avoiding the political by immersing his characters in the scatological. (There is more talk of human excrement in this book than in, perhaps, anything written in the twentieth century outside medical journals and certain sexual fetish novels.) Again, this is a personal thing, but I found myself quailing at the turn of every page, wondering how many of the words would have been better printed in brown.
So many conflicts about this novel, and all of them of a personal nature. I have no choice but to give it a straight middle-of-the-road ** ½ and come back to it at a later time. There is much here to be explored, but I didn't see it as the be-all and end-all of Portugese literature that some have heralded it.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2002
This brilliantly written novel of Jose Saramago, a Portuguese Nobel Prize winner is harrowingly allegoric in its style and content. It evokes irony, humor and sympathy at the human condition. Saramago is one of the greatest writers of our generation with an extraordinary vision and an incredible imagination.
The story opens with a man driving his car, stopped at the traffic light, suddenly struck totally blind. Within a day those associated with him, his wife, the eye doctor and the taxi driver are all blinded. The epidemic spreads and the government in panic quarantines the victims into an abandoned mental asylum. In this crowded asylum of blind people, soon the organized systems break down and social conventions crumble, paving way to selfishness and cruelty among the internees. The 'doctor's wife' who had a pair of seeing eyes, helps to report the filth, dread, sex and violence amidst the lawless pandemonium of these wards. Eventually seven internees get away from the wards under her leadership, with the asylum burning down behind them. Soon, they realize that the entire city had gone blind. Walking through the haunted city they hunt for food and search for shelter. The total breakdown of the systems of the society eventually reduces them to living like nomads moving from one place to the other among the utter devastation of the city. The agonizing life of the blind men and women of the city with all its filth and horror thus unfolds before the reader until a few of them regain their sight and return to normal life.
The events happen in an unnamed city, in an unknown land. None of the characters are mentioned by name. The chapters of the book are neither numbered, nor named. The lengthy paragraphs of prose with minimum of punctuation and no quotation marks pose real challenge to the reader. Though these make the reading cumbersome and understanding strenuous, they help the reader to experience the gropings and stumblings of the characters in the chaotic city of the blind. No wonder, the book successfully transports one into the world of blindness sharing the emotions and feelings of the characters. This thought-provoking book should help one to discover the blindness in each one of us. It also would help one to face squarely and boldly the dread created by the confusion and disorientation of the modern civilization.
29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2000
You approach Blindness from a distance. The subject is so utterly chilling that you ask why go on. First, there is the unusual style of the writing. The lack of regular paragraph breaks, odd punctuation and no quotes makes for a slow read. You soon realize that this book must be read slow for a variety of reasons. The primary one being that you need to absorb the magnitude of characters horrific situation. The story actually frightens you but like the characters you soon grow more accustomed to the situation. After the first fifty pages, I found the story so consuming that I had to keep reading. Despite no character having a name you are drawn to them completely. This is not an ordinary book. It is a work by an enormously talented author (who I had not previously heard of). This book forces you to contemplate how fragile society can be. It illustrates a complete breakdown of our way of life. It is certainly not for the faint of heart but a must read those seeking provocative litature. You may want to read this with a friend or in a club. It will generate conversation. I strongly recommend Blindness.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2003
Blindness is José Saramago's compelling novel of humanity under siege. White blindness created mayhem that relentlessly befalls the entire city and its inhabitants within just a matter of hours. In a bustling intersection, a man sitting in his car waiting for the lights suddenly turns blind-a sea of impermeable and luminous milkiness instead of the plunging darkness one usually expects. A "Good Samaritan" pedestrian offers to park his car for him (and steals it later) and takes him home. The thief then receives his comeuppance and is struck blind. The wife of the first blind man takes him to the ophthalmologist on a cab. Within a day, the cab driver, the ophthalmologist, the patients at the eye clinic and those whom the first blind man comes in contact with turn blind.
The government responds to this unprecedented outbreak by sending the blind to a desolated mental asylum for quarantine. Under stern surveillance of soldiers, the internees have to abide by the regulations that push them to the edge of humanity-bury the dead among them, maintain strict isolation from the soldiers who bring in food thrice a say, remain indoor as any attempt to escape or any sign of a seditious movement will result in death. The ophthalmologist's wife seems to be the only one who has not succumbed to blindness. She becomes the eye of those who lost their eyesight. She becomes the one in whom the inmates find solace, comfort and encouragement that spur them on to living in the midst of great distress, pain, and anguish.
The book gets very difficult emotionally (in fact disturbing) as the mental asylum gets overcrowded and soldiers, who are seized by this formidable terror, overreacted and started opening fire at the inmates. While the army regrets having been forced to repress with weapons, the soldiers know that the commander seek to resolve the outbreak by physically wiping out the lot of the inmates. And the army has the effrontery to proclaim firing as an act for which the army is neither directly nor indirectly to blame. As food rations come sporadically and becomes meager, a group of blind hoodlums rob their fellow inmates of valuables in exchange for food.
At one point I am retching and completely grossed out. The quarantine system irreversibly deteriorates and collapses with it the hygiene and medications needed to treat diseases (as some inmates are stricken by influenza). Toilets clog and back-flush. Excrements pile and lay strewn on hallways. Smelling the fetid smell that comes from the lavatories in gusts makes the doctor's wife want to throw up. Her courage, which before has been so resolute, begins to crumble.
The novel cunningly and candidly exposes how frail human society can be. The entire banking system collapses, the traffic thwarted, the streets are strewn with corpses, the dogs tear off flesh from corpses... I put down the book and ask myself: how could human dignity be debased as such? Isn't it true that dignity has no price and life loses all meaning when one starts to make small concessions? Yet it sheds a ray of hope that one person's perseverance can make a difference.
Readers will find nameless characters in this novel (the first blind man, the first blind man's wife, the doctor, the doctor's wife, the thief, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with a squint, the old man with a black eye patch). The notion of name is not important in the book as the characters succumb to their blindness. All that remains are the voices and the memories of the past with which each person makes of his identity. I have to say that even they are nameless, they are not compromised in their depiction but are very etched and real characters. I think blindness forces the characters to come in grip with their fear, weakness, shame and demons that enslave them before they are stripped of eyesight.
Those who are not familiar with José Saramago's style might wish to practice a little patience with his embedded paragraphs and dialogues that are stripped of any punctuation marks. The prose can go on for pages without a break. In spite of the somehow difficult format, it constructs a sense of panic and tension as one read. It is for the very reason that this book is neither a quick read nor a page-turner. On a surface level, Blindness is a compelling tale of an unprecedented outbreak. In the core of the book stores a candid, relentless, but transcendental quintessence of humanity. 5.0 stars.