I think a lot has been said in general about the animal instinct of man – his capability of rapid degeneration in face of calamity and the tipsy and highly vulnerable nature of order and organization, that merely hangs on weak threads of faith and fear. Therefore, Saramago’s re-emphasis on the same instincts and his question-mark on humanity and civility appeared to me like flogging of an already weak and slightly horrifying horse. It did not help that Saramago applied himself to careful detailing of this degeneration and continued to re-draw those details in every scene. As a result, it became quite difficult for me as a reader to wade through the muck of a sub-zero level hygiene and rampant putrefaction, and reach the literary brilliance at the core.
The work, no doubt, in that signature style of Saramago that I have come to love, is insightful and very expressive. Here too, like The Double and The Cave, he takes us to a nameless country, has us meet the nameless people who are identified only by their first appearance in the novel – the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the old man with the black eye patch, the first blind man, etc. He then holds our hands and delves deep into these characters, forcing us through the web of complex thoughts and emotions that goes on in those minds. Sometimes, the reader is fascinated by this web – but sometimes, you just don’t like to see what rot lies there – something that is specifically true of Blindness.
Blindness is a story of a whole city (perhaps country) gone blind, for no explicable reason. The initial people to go blind are put in an asylum by the Government, and the book focuses on the tribulations of these people, and their view (only figuratively) of this blind world. In this group is a woman, who for some reason retains her sight. It is perhaps through her eyes that we see the moral, civil and human degradation of the world in the face of this calamity.
The literary value of the book is high, and you can dig a dry irony in many places. For instance the book begins with the scene of a traffic light:
The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light
appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who
were waiting began to cross the road…
These few words describe the dependence of this world on visual signals, and thus even before he begins on the calamity, Saramago tells us how much havoc is he going to create in this ‘automated’ world by taking away the sight.
Since I just posted the link to the review of Coetzee’s work, I can’t help noticing the stark contrast between these two authors. While Coetzee draws heavily on the existing world as a backdrop for his works, Saramago stands on the opposite end and makes a new and strange world in his novels – carrying only a few elements of human nature from the real world.