**Quote Unquote is a new series of review-style posts geared towards mining my way through the mountain of books I have managed to accrue over the last few years**
Tonight I’m going to be looking at Blindness by Portuguese writer José Saramago, Nobel Prize winner and author of The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. I’ve had the book for the best part of a year, having borrowed it from my mother’s collection, and I took it with me on the Camino two weeks ago. I thought it would do me good to get some cultural reading under my belt, and Blindness looked like a light read… at the time. But that’s exactly what you get for not reading the blurb thoroughly, though the title alone should have given me an idea of what I was in for!
In his ensaio, Saramago weaves a monstrous tale centred on, above all else, the darkness in the human heart. It is not so much a cautionary tale as a dreadful reminder that we are only one small stage removed from savagery: one small push is all it takes. In this grim tale, that small push is the loss of sight. Starting with a man who goes suddenly and inexplicably blind whilst waiting at the traffic lights, the blindness spreads like a plague, spreading out from the source and driving panic in its wake. As the authorities race to take action, the affected are quarantined within an asylum, where things deteriorate with terrifying speed, culminating in the rule of force of a bunch of blind thugs who seize the food supply and extort their fellow inmates, first demanding their possessions, then the women. When a timely fire drives the blind out of the asylum and into the world, they find things are not all that much better on the outside. Throughout, Saramago conjures up a bleak world of stumbling and tripping, of unimaginable filth and miserable humanity and the depths to which the world can sink. We see it all through the eyes of the doctor’s wife, the one character miraculously spared the “white evil”, whose ability to see all that transpires becomes something of a curse as she alone is forced to bear witness to the breakdown of the world around her. She, and those within her halo of morality, somehow make it through their terrible ordeal until, just as quickly and inexplicably as it began, the blind have their sight restored.
Saramago’s writing style is hard going, to say the least. Even in translation, Saramago opts for chunky, seemingly endless paragraphs with no markers to indicate who is talking to whom. Like the Nadsat employed in A Clockwork Orange, one adapts to this style of narrative after a while, but it does make for difficult reading at times, especially when multiple characters are in conversation.
I’m not entirely sure what it is about blindness that makes for such a powerful plot device. I often come back to Triffids between books, and there are obvious parallels between the two books, though when rested against Saramago’s version of events, Wyndham’s vision of a world populated by the blind seems remarkably clean. Compared to the latter’s apocalyptic London of shattered windows and irregularly parked cars, the streets of the mental asylum and the unnamed city in Saramago’s work are rancid, litter-strewn and splattered with so much human sewage that one wonders whether the triffids operated a waste disposal service as part of their world domination bid. Wyndham’s world is also laced with an unmistakeable air of Middle England decorum: even after the total breakdown of society, the old laws still apply and sex is as invisible in Triffid-infested England as it is in Middle Earth. Not so with Saramago. There is one scene in particular in Blindness that will probably haunt me to the end of my days, not least of all for having seen it acted out with remarkably human depravity by Gael García Bernal in the 2008 film version (not how I imagined the character, but no less menacing a presence).
Blindness as a theme holds a morbid fascination for me, as sight is the one sense of the five I could not live without – and I can speak with a little experience on this count, as an especially fierce migraine temporarily robbed me of mine when I was eleven years old. It was only for few minutes – it might have been three or it might have been five – but I remember the terror as the world faded into darkness in the middle of a Biology lesson one morning. When my sight returned a few minutes later, I cannot even begin to describe my relief. It was an incident I never got any stick for – which is surprising, given how much of a commotion I must have made, flailing about on my stool and crying out that I could not see – but perhaps that stands testament to the shared understanding seated deep within all of us of the terror of a world without sight; an inheritance from our ancestors of a time before fire and the electric light, when the starless night was inky black and full of danger. That primordial sense of fear is never far away in Saramago’s writing. Stripped of any kind of logic or explanation, the plague of blindness reduces humanity to its very worst, reminding us all that, without sight, our mastery of this world is finished and we are cast back to a primal state which, in all likelihood, will kill us all eventually.
In short, I’m glad I read Blindness, but boy, did Saramago have some demons… I am learning to bleed a little more darkness and despair into my own writing, which is and always has been so thoroughly oversaturated with hope, but I sincerely hope I am never driven to conjure up such a hellish place as Saramago’s asylum for the blind.
The blinded icons in the church. You’ll find a lot of the same images in Triffids – the lines of blind people staggering down a street, people clawing hopefully at tins in supermarkets that don’t contain food, the silence of a world where all the cars have suddenly stopped – but there is nothing quite as harrowing in Wyndham’s world as the church of the blinded icons. It’s one of those truly original scenes that one encounters every so often in a good book that stay with you forever. The idea of a vengeful priest scratching out the eyes of the painted saints and blindfolding the statues is monstrously chilling; a vision of lost hope in a figurehead normally associated with being the last bastion of faith in a darkening world. The absence of said priest in the scene, leaving the reasoning to conjecture, only adds to the haunting effect. It is a scene I almost feel moved to paint. Perhaps someday I will give it a try.
The girl with the dark glasses. Cool, independent and frequently insightful, the girl with the dark glasses puts up with a lot in the narrative – in Saramago’s world, a physically attractive woman is no safer in a blind world. She adjusts to her predicament with remarkable speed, adopts an orphaned child and provides an iron support to the women of the asylum through her cool head and determination. The circumstances surrounding her affliction also make for a curious and delightfully awkward plot point – a rare moment of humour in the tale.
It is necessary to kill when what is still alive is already dead.
I’m not entirely convinced that there are limits to misfortune and evil.
Panic is much faster than the legs that carry it.