José Saramago: Blindness

I had more than one strange experience whilst reading this book. In fact, I even came to it in an unusual way; whilst working for the London Word Festival. Saramago’s novel was being used as part of an immersive auto-theatre piece in which an audience of two people is led through a performance of words and reading. I participated in the piece a couple of times, and the first few pages of Blindness – which was all we got to read of it before being whisked off into another text – fixed in my memory because of their strange uniqueness and the intensity of the setting in which I first read them.

I read it mostly whilst working at a gallery whose current exhibition is very noisy, and so there was a constant murmur of odd and sometimes sinister noise in the periphery at all times. My co-workers at the gallery are pretty much always ex-art students, and so have a very different literary background to myself: almost all of them had heard of or studied Blindness (performing art students especially). I found this interesting, and it – unavoidably – informed my reading of this novel.

Saramago is a Portuguese writer, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

Undoubtedly this is a novel that would bear a second reading. The text is so dense, because of the unusual style employed by Saramago (no speech marks, no character names, very long paragraphs) that I found myself spending quite a lot of time just keeping up with what was going on and who was speaking. Which, I suppose, is part of the point – the reader isn’t given all the usual visual cues and is left fumbling in the relative darkness of an unmarked page, trying to find his place. And the allegorical nature of this novel doesn’t end here – the whole bloody thing is an allegory.

There is an interesting narrative voice, too – an almost-omniscient narrator with his/her own view on the proceedings. It speculates and infers, but never really seems to know.

When we talk about ‘blindness’ in this novel, what are we talking about? On the one hand, we are talking about the literal blindness of the characters; the epidemic of white blindness that causes the whole of society to collapse into something much worse than chaos. On the other hand, we are talking about a figurative blindness; ‘I think we are blind. Blind but seeing’ says one of the characters at the very end of the novel, when everyone has regained their sight. There is a feeling that the blindness that struck the world was merely a physical manifestation of a moral or cultural or social blindness that existed all along. But blindness to what? The fragility of our society? Our systems? Cities? The body, the family, morality? Perhaps all of these things, because all of these things come undone through the blindness.

Food for thought, certainly. Powerful. Enjoyable? At times uncomfortable and grotesque and disturbing. But undoubtedly compelling.

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