Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Blindness - José Saramago

Title: Blindness
Author: José Saramago
Publication Date: 1995
Pages: 379
How I Found It: A variety of sources
Date Completed: 6/17/15

Summary: In an unnamed city, an epidemic of blindness suddenly and rapidly sweeps through the population. The early affected are placed in a makeshift quarantine, a feeble attempt by the government to staunch the spread of the ailment. Among the group placed there, an optometrist's wife who is somehow the sole retainer of sight.

What I Thought: This is one of those books you hear of every now and then as a must read, a triumph of literary prowess. Saramago's look at humanity through blind eyes (or, really, they last seeing eyes left) certainly says a lot about the human condition in a unique and terrifying way.

In the beginning, I struggled with this one. The lack of names and the seemingly endless flow of story were hard for me to adjust to. I simply could not find the motivation or desire to read more than ten or twenty pages at a time. Thankfully, in a burst of inspiration, I sought out the audiobook. Somehow, hearing the story, as though I had blind eyes myself, transformed my experience with the novel. Suddenly, it was an oral story, told in Homer's tradition, a method of the sightless and the earliest, easiest form of human storytelling. Changing the delivery method to audio seemed to connect the reader so much more efficiently with the story and its messages.

I think the powerful, enduring impact of this novel comes from its exploration of humanity. Saramago pulls no punches when describing the world post-blindness. Those affected quickly realize their predicament and most rapidly shed the confines of social expectations and solicitudes. What remains is a world where people take what they want, when they want, how they want. The reality of this is brutal and saddening. 

At one point, the main group of characters are terrorized by a group of villains demanding sexual submission in exchange for food and "safety." These scenes were deeply disturbing and made me incredibly uncomfortable. Yet, upon finishing the book and viewing it as a whole, I can understand their place in the narrative. The violence pervasive throughout the book, sexual or not, all contributes to the statement Saramago is making about humanity. He has stripped the world of culture, stigma, and class. Instead, those with little moral compass and much greed for power reign as they did in the early days of humankind. No matter how "good" a person may have been considered before the equalizing epidemic, the anonymity of mass blindness opens the door to temptation. While watching the hit AMC show The Walking Dead, Kevin and I often comment about how, in a world departed from civility and social contract, the craziest among us would rule by fear and violence. Saramago displays this well while maintaining room for other base human emotions such as compassion, self-preservation, and love.

I have to say, again, that I really hated the lack of names. This choice, among others, rang unrealistic to me. Not only did it make the novel hard to follow at times and certainly difficult to engage with at the beginning, it also seemed ridiculous to me. I understand that while visual anonymity ruled the lives of the characters a lack of named identity helped portray that to the reader. Still, the only world in which I can imagine all of humanity tossing aside names as useless is a society of mutes, not one of the blind - and even then, it's a stretch. I understand the literary choice being made here; but it annoyed me.

I'm in the midst of reading The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George and she has a wonderful quote about Blindness. The main character, a bookseller, says to a customer, "[Blindness is] not a book for someone starting out in life. It's for people in the middle of it. Who wonder where the devil the first half went. Who raise their eyes from the feet they'd been eagerly placing one in front of the other without looking where they've been running so sensibly and diligently all this time. Only those who are blind to life need Saramago's fable." I think that is a beautiful description; it captures the tone and importance of the book, while recognizing that many will fail to appreciate it on its highest level. Personally, I think I appreciate it some, but not as much as I may a decade or so from now. 

There is so much to digest in this novel. I did not walk away from it loving it, but I did walk about thinking about a lot of things; I continue to do so. It is thought-provoking and challenging on many levels. I understand completely why it has been a hit and I respect Saramago's ability to capture human nature so well in his writing. 

Rating: ★★★★☆
Will I Re-Read: At some point, perhaps
If You Liked This Try: Station Eleven / Bel Canto / Lighthouse Island

A Reduced Review: What would a great equalizer such as blindness do to society? Saramago's best seller captures the base line of humanity in all its beauty and ugliness. 

I'm proud to remind you that this book is on my 2015 TBR Pile Challenge list.  I'm so excited I joined this challenge for the first time. I am enjoying having some structure to my TBR and the change to make intentional choices about what I read next. Make sure you check out the rest of my list and follow the challenge throughout the year. 

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