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. But instead of being plunged into darkness, this man sees everything white, as if he "were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea." 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. So begins Portuguese author José Saramago's gripping story of humanity under siege, written with a dearth of paragraphs, limited punctuation, and embedded dialogue minus either quotation marks or attribution. At first this may seem challenging, but the style actually contributes to the narrative's building tension, and to the reader's involvement.
In this community of blind people there is still one set of functioning eyes: the doctor's wife has affected blindness in order to accompany her husband to the asylum. As the number of victims grows and the asylum becomes overcrowded, systems begin to break down: toilets back up, food deliveries become sporadic; there is no medical treatment for the sick and no proper way to bury the dead. Inevitably, social conventions begin to crumble as well, with one group of blind inmates taking control of the dwindling food supply and using it to exploit the others. Through it all, the doctor's wife does her best to protect her little band of blind charges, eventually leading them out of the hospital and back into the horribly changed landscape of the city.
Blindness is in many ways a horrific novel, detailing as it does the total breakdown in society that follows upon this most unnatural disaster. Saramago takes his characters to the very edge of humanity and then pushes them over the precipice. His people learn to live in inexpressible filth, they commit acts of both unspeakable violence and amazing generosity that would have been unimaginable to them before the tragedy. The very structure of society itself alters to suit the circumstances as once-civilized, urban dwellers become ragged nomads traveling by touch from building to building in search of food. The devil is in the details, and Saramago has imagined for us in all its devastation a hell where those who went blind in the streets can never find their homes again, where people are reduced to eating chickens raw and packs of dogs roam the excrement-covered sidewalks scavenging from corpses.
And yet in the midst of all this horror Saramago has written passages of unsurpassed beauty. Upon being told she is beautiful by three of her charges, women who have never seen her, "the doctor's wife is reduced to tears because of a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, mere grammatical categories, mere labels, just like the two women, the others, indefinite pronouns, they too are crying, they embrace the woman of the whole sentence, three graces beneath the falling rain." In this one woman Saramago has created an enduring, fully developed character who serves both as the eyes and ears of the reader and as the conscience of the race. And in Blindness he has written a profound, ultimately transcendent meditation on what it means to be human. --Alix Wilber
From Publishers Weekly
Brilliant Portuguese fabulist Saramago (The History of the Siege of Lisbon) has never shied away from big game. His previous works have rewritten the history of Portugal, reimagined the life of Christ and remodeled a continent by cleaving the Iberian peninsula from Europe and setting it adrift. Here, Saramago stalks two of our oldest themes in the tale of a plague of blindness that strikes an unnamed European city. At the novel's opening, a driver sits in traffic, waiting for the light to change. By the time it does, his field of vision is white, a "milky sea." One by one, each person the man encounters?the not-so-good Samaritan who drives him home, the man's wife, the ophthalmologist, the patients waiting to see the ophthalmologist?is struck blind. Like any inexplicable contagion, this plague of "white sickness" sets off panic. The government interns the blind, as well as those exposed to them, in an abandoned mental hospital guarded by an army with orders to shoot any detainee who tries to escape. Like Camus, to whom he cannot help being compared, Saramago uses the social disintegration of people in extremis as a crucible in which to study the combustion of our vices and virtues. As order at the mental hospital breaks down and the contagion spreads, the depraved overpower the decent. When the hospital is consumed in flames, the fleeing internees find that everyone has gone blind. Sightless people rove in packs, scavenging for food, sleeping wherever they can. Throughout the narrative, one character remains sighted, the ophthalmologist's wife. Claiming to be blind so she may be interned with her husband, she eventually becomes the guide and protector for an improvised family. Indeed, she is the reader's guide and stand-in, the repository of human decency, the hero, if such an elaborate fable can have a hero. Even after so many factual accounts of mass cruelty, this most sophisticated fiction retains its peculiar power to move and persuade. Editor, Drenka Willen. (Sept.) FYI: Paperback editions of The History of the Siege of Lisbon and Baltasar and Blimunda will be issued simultaneously.
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