Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blindness, or the reason I gazed hungrily at a flower for 15 minutes

How to describe Blindness?

OK . . . let's try this: Imagine the zombie apocalypse, because of course you know what that looks like (and if you don't . . . you're clearly ill prepared, and I will NOT be sharing my weapons with you). Once you've formed that mental picture, just replace the zombies with disoriented blind people. And that's Blindness.


One day, a man is sitting in his car, staring at a stoplight and waiting for it to turn green. It's a day just like any other day, and this man is just like any other man (it could be YOU . . . but it couldn't be me because I'm not a man). That red light is the last thing he sees before his vision is swallowed by an opaque whiteness. This inexplicable "white blindness" travels from person to person, and government officials, ascertaining that they have an epidemic of blindness on their hands, quarantine all those affected. A closed mental asylum is chosen as the initial quarantine facility . . . and that is where most of the crazy happens in our story.

Saramago gracefully (and unapologetically) rips apart every aspect of our lives that we take for granted and exposes the ugliest and most beautiful actions of humans under crisis. Although the phenomenon of sudden blindness seems far removed from the world we know, Saramago expertly grounds his premise in reality, the reality of human nature and the workings of government . . . the way of the world in general. Also, the characters remain nameless. Saramago sets them apart using descriptors ("the girl with dark glasses," "the first blind man," "the boy with the squint," etc.), which makes their experiences universal. They are just placeholders . . . perhaps for us.

The writing style is a little exasperating. Here's the thing about Saramago: He doesn't use punctuation. Well, that's not true . . . he DOES use periods and he is CERTAINLY fond of commas. But that's it. Nary a question mark or quotation mark, and very few paragraph breaks. The result is incredibly disorienting, which works for this book but resulted in me rereading everything six times before I could figure out who was saying what and where this person's dialogue ended and this other person's began and WHERE IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT'S GOOD AND HOLY IS THE END OF THIS SENTENCE BECAUSE I HAVE TO FEED THE DOGS SOMETIME TODAY AND ALL I SEE ARE COMMAS.


That being said, this is what people call "an important book." And people are right about that. These problems, aside from the literal blindness, could be (and in many cases ARE) our problems. And there are some really gorgeous moments. I will leave you with my favorite one:
"You were never more beautiful, said the wife of the first blind man. Words like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them coming irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings, sometimes the nerves that cannot bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armour, we might say. The doctor's wife has nerves of steel, and yet 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." (pp. 281282)
And here's a picture of José Saramago reading to a sleepy doggy:


SOURCE: Saramago, José. (1997). Blindness (G. Pontiero, Trans.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt.



18 comments:

  1. Excellent book, and great review. The lack of punctuation was disconcerting to me at first, too, but I settled into it. Although the book was amazingly well-written, I still have no desire to see the movie, since all the depravity and betrayal? I do not need to see on screen. Though I'm sure I'd appreciate the moments of grace.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I actually really hated this book when I read it in college. It was so People With Capitalistic Tendencies Are Evil Rapists and oh did I mention Saramago was a communist? Which, fine, but I'm gonna need you to stop preaching at me kthanksbai.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've never read any Saramago, and I feel like I should.  Blindness sounds very intense, but I like the idea of the punctuation craziness (although I'm sure I'd also get really frustrated by it).  I remember when I read Doctorow's Ragtime I was equally annoyed and impressed by the lack of quotation marks.  In the end it really won me over.  

    Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Emily @ As the Crowe FliesFebruary 25, 2012 at 9:39 AM

    I also loved this book--my husband asked me to read it for him one year as a Christmas gift to him.  How could I possibly refuse that?  The lack of normal punctuation used to bother me, but now that I've read more of him and of his ilk (Yeah, I'm talking about *you* Cormac McCarthy), I mostly just have a fond exasperation: Oh, it took him three pages to end this one sentence, bless his heart

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeeeesh, I see what you mean about the commas! Why will that sentence never stop?! (Ok, two sentences. And they are very nice!) Anyway, this sounds good, only I think a massive amount of brain focusness would be needed to read it soooo I'll wait til a day like that comes up. That'll definitely happen, right?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Yeahhh...I was getting that preachy vibe, too, and then I decided to ignore the political message and try to focus on the bits that I could believe based on what I know about human nature.

    But I DIDN'T know Saramago was a communist...and I'm kind of glad I didn't find that out until I was finished with the book. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had read this in college and been encouraged to analyze it and delve into the context in which it was written, I wouldn't have liked it either.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I haven't seen the movie either, and I was just debating whether to put it in my Netflix queue. I think you're right though...it's not really necessary to spend any more time in that world, even if Julianne Moore is there. ; )

    ReplyDelete
  8. This was my first Saramago...and I confess, I bought it because I had heard of the movie and thought the premise sounded interesting.

    I think this is the first book I've ever read that didn't use quotation marks for dialogue. I adapted more quickly than I thought I would, but I still wasn't exactly sure if I was attributing words to the right characters or if I'd gotten mixed up somewhere along the way. I don't know if I can handle another of his books anytime soon.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love that you read this as a gift to your husband. You CAN'T refuse that kind of request. I told my husband he might like this one, too, but when I mentioned the bit about the punctuation he looked at me like I had asked him to read Beowulf in its original language. Maybe when Christmas gets a little closer...

    ReplyDelete
  10. SO MUCH brain focusness is required. My brain needed a nap and an ice cream when I was done reading...but it's worth it. Now, whether you'll ever get a day of massive brain focusness...that's another matter.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I was JUST ABOUT to tweet at you and yell about writing more posts, but here's one I hadn't seen. So all is well.

    Blindness, you say? Wasn't Julianne Moore in this movie? I could not even handle that paragraph, but experimental, non-Dickensian writing, it is too difficult for me, so I tip my hat to you for enjoying it (overall...or partially overall).

    ReplyDelete
  12. I was expecting a threatening tweet from you any minute! I'm glad I was able to 

    Yes...Julianne Moore was in that one. She was the reason I almost saw it, but for some reason I didn't get around to it and now I probably never will. Too much sad. No more please.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Haha! So apparently I didn't finish my though there in that first line...I don't even know what I was planning to say. So just use your imagination I guess.

    ReplyDelete
  14.  *pokes you and hurries away*

    ReplyDelete
  15. Well that was uncalled for...

    ReplyDelete
  16. So this sounds all kinds of interesting, especially the reference you made to zombies, and I KNOW there aren't actually zombies but still, interest piqued. However all those commas. This looks like a book to tackle when I'm feeling super focused. Which is unfortunately not often.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Any mention of zombies usually grabs my attention...so, of course, I mention zombies as often as possible.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I actually really hated this book when I read it in college. It was so People With Capitalistic Tendencies Are Evil Rapists and oh did I mention Saramago was a communist? Which, fine, but I'm gonna need you to stop preaching at me kthanksbai.

    ReplyDelete