A man stopped at a traffic light, waiting for the light to turn, suddenly goes blind, a white blindness, like you’re viewing the world in a fog so great it obliterates all the world from view. He stumbles out of the car, calling out, I can’t see, I can’t see. A man takes him home. His wife takes him to the eye doctor.
Shortly after coming into contact with him, all of these people go blind as well, following by all of the people they come into contact with. An epidemic of blindness spreads through the city. The government in an immediate and swift effort to quell the spread, take all the people who are blind and all the people who have come in contact with them an lock them into quarantine, a sanatorium without doctors or anyone to aid them.
In order to stay with her husband, the doctor’s wife claims that she is blind too, in order to join her husband in quarantine. She is certain that her time to be blind will come, but in the meantime, she is the only person with vision in a ward of the blind, the only true witness to the horrors that all the detainees experience.
The first thing you will notice about this book is that there are no names. In a world of the blind, Saramago asserts, identity is eliminated. The characters in this book are known only as the man, the doctor, the woman with dark glasses, the boy with a quint, etc. Unable to see each other and recognize each other, names have no meaning.
Likewise, and to assert this point, dialog is not separated out into separate paragraphs. Whole strings of conversation flow into one another within a single paragraph. To give you a sense of what I mean, here’s a string of dialogue:
“What does reading do, You can learn almost everything from reading, But I read too, So you must know something, Now I’m not so sure, You’ll have to read differently then, How, The same method doesn’t work for everyone, each person has to invent his or her own, whichever suits them best, some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don’t have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.”
What you get are dense blocks of text, paragraphs that occasionally go on for several pages. Surprisingly, this did not throw me. Saramago is a skillful writer, and I was soon able to pick up the pattern of his writing and make sense of where the dialog began and ended. I wasn’t confused and the reading was easy, despite the thick chunks of text. Descriptions, scenes, dialog, and musings tumble one into the next, just as in life one day’s emotional and physical events and toils tumble into each other. The story maintains clarity and carries you along as though you are merely on a boat at the mercy of the flow of the river.
Saramago’s writing is philosophical, pondering, and beautiful, even as he is describing the horrifying events that occur. He manages to bring out the humanity in his characters even as he asserts that this mass epidemic of blindness eliminates the humanity of the population, which suddenly unable to care for itself is starving and desperate to survive.
Blindness is a beautiful book, one I would love to read again some time as I’m sure I would take something new away from it the second time around.
As a side note, a movie was adapted from the book, staring Julianne Moore. The movie is a fair adaptation and a good movie, though clearly it lacks the philosophical depth of the book.