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. 281–282)And here's a picture of José Saramago reading to a sleepy doggy:
SOURCE: Saramago, José. (1997). Blindness (G. Pontiero, Trans.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt.