Blindness

Blindness

August 25, 2008

Blindness starts out with one man spontaneously going blind in the middle of rush hour. Confused and scared, a crowd gathers, their frustration forgotten, and one man offers to drive him home. Once he has the blind man home, he proceeds to steal the...

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352 Pages
3.8

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Blindness starts out with one man spontaneously going blind in the middle of rush hour. Confused and scared, a crowd gathers, their frustration forgotten, and one man offers to drive him home. Once he has the blind man home, he proceeds to steal the first blind man's car

Blindness is a novel by Portuguese author José Saramago. It is one of his most famous novels, along with The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Baltasar and Blimunda. In 1998, Saramago received the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Blindness was one of his works noted by the committee when announcing the award.

 

Blindness is the story of an unexplained mass epidemic of blindness afflicting nearly everyone in an unnamed city, and the social breakdown that swiftly follows. The novel follows the misfortunes of a handful of characters who are among the first to be stricken and centers on "the doctor's wife," her husband, several of his patients, and assorted others, who are thrown together by chance. After lengthy and traumatic quarantine in an asylum, the group bands together in a family-like unit to survive by their wits and by the unexplained good fortune that the doctor’s wife has escaped the blindness. The sudden onset and unexplained origin and nature of the blindness cause widespread panic, and the social order rapidly unravels as the government attempts to contain the apparent contagion and keep order via increasingly repressive and inept measures.

 

The first part of the novel follows the experiences of the central characters in the filthy, overcrowded asylum where they and other blind people have been quarantined. Hygiene, living conditions, and morale degrade horrifically in a very short period, mirroring the society outside.

 

Anxiety over the availability of food, caused by delivery irregularities, acts to undermine solidarity; and lack of organization prevents the internees from fairly distributing food or chores. Soldiers assigned to guard the asylum and look after the well-being of the internees become increasingly antipathetic as one soldier after another becomes infected. The military refuse to allow in basic medicines, so that a simple infection becomes deadly. Fearing a break out, soldiers shoot down a crowd of internees waiting upon food delivery.

 

Conditions degenerate further as an armed clique gains control over food deliveries, subjugating their fellow internees and exposing them to rape and deprivation. Faced with starvation, internees battle each other and burn down the asylum, only to discover that the army has abandoned the asylum, after which the protagonists join the throngs of nearly helpless blind people outside who wander the devastated city and fight one another to survive.

 

The story then follows the doctor's wife, her husband, and their impromptu “family” as they attempt to survive outside, cared for largely by the doctor’s wife, who can still see (though she must hide this fact at first). The breakdown of society is near total. Law and order, social services, government, schools, etc., no longer function. Families have been separated and cannot find each other. People squat in abandoned buildings and scrounge for food. Violence, disease, and despair threaten to overwhelm human coping. The doctor and his wife and their new “family” eventually make a permanent home in the doctor's house and are establishing a new order to their lives when the blindness lifts from the city en masse just as suddenly and inexplicably as it struck.

 

José de Sousa Saramago, GColSE (16 November 1922 – 18 June 2010), was a Portuguese writer and recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the theopoetic human factor. In 2003 Harold Bloom described Saramago as "the most gifted novelist alive in the world today" and in 2010 said he considers Saramago to be "a permanent part of the Western canon", while James Wood praises "the distinctive tone to his fiction because he narrates his novels as if he were someone both wise and ignorant." Bloom and Saramago met when Saramago presented Bloom with an honorary degree from the University of Coimbra; according to Bloom: "A warm acquaintanceship ensued, marked by an exegetical disagreement concerning The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which continued in correspondence and at a later meeting in New York City".

 

More than two million copies of Saramago's books have been sold in Portugal alone and his work has been translated into 25 languages. A proponent of libertarian communism, Saramago criticized institutions such as the Catholic Church, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. An atheist, he defended love as an instrument to improve the human condition. In 1992, the Government of Portugal under Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva ordered the removal of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ from the Aristeion Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive. Disheartened by this political censorship of his work, Saramago went into exile on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, where he lived until his death in 2010.

 

Saramago was a founding member of the National Front for the Defense of Culture in Lisbon in 1992, and co-founder with Orhan Pamuk, of the European Writers' Parliament (EWP).

 

Accepting his Nobel prize, Saramago, calling himself "the apprentice", said: "The apprentice thought, 'we are blind', and he sat down and wrote Blindness to remind those who might read it that we pervert reason when we humiliate life, that human dignity is insulted every day by the powerful of our world, that the universal lie has replaced the plural truths, that man stopped respecting himself when he lost the respect due to his fellow-creatures."

 

This, on the face of it, is an odd description of Blindness, for in that book it is powerless people who insult human dignity - ordinary people, terrified at finding themselves and everyone else blind, everything out of control. Some behave with stupid, selfish brutality, sauve qui peut. The group of men who seize power in an asylum and use and abuse the weaker inmates have indeed abandoned self-respect and human decency: they are a microcosm of the corruption of power. But the truly powerful of our world don't even appear in Blindness. Seeing is all about them: the perverters of reason, the universal liars. It is about government gone wrong.

 

Very evidently Saramago's novels are not simple parables. It would be rash to "explain" what all the people (but one) in the first book were blind to, or what it is that the citizens of Seeing see. What's clear is that they're the same people, it's the same city, a few years later: one book illuminates the other in ways I can only begin to glimpse.

 

The story begins with those ordinary citizens, who not so long ago regained their sight and their tranquil day-to-day lives, doing something that seems quite unconnected with vision or lack of it. It is voting day, and 83% of them, after not going to the polls at all in the morning, go in the late afternoon and cast a blank ballot.

 

We see the dismay of bureaucrats, the excitement of journalists, the hysteria of the government, and the mild non-response of the citizens, who, when asked how they voted, refuse to say, reminding the questioner that the question is illegal. The satire is at first quite funny, and I thought it was going to be a light, Voltairean tale.

 

Turning in a blank ballot is a signal unfamiliar to most Britons and Americans, who aren't yet used to living under a government that has made voting meaningless. In a functioning democracy, one can consider not voting a lazy protest liable to play into the hands of the party in power (as when low Labour turn-out allowed Margaret Thatcher's re-elections, and Democratic apathy secured both elections of George W Bush). It comes hard to me to admit that a vote is not in itself an act of power, and I was at first blind to the point Saramago's non-voting voters are making. I began to see it at last, when the minister of defence announces that what the country is facing is terrorism.

 

Other ministers oppose him but he gets what he wants - a state of emergency, then the exodus of the government, by night, from the capital city, which is declared to be under siege. A bomb is exploded (by terrorists, of course, as the media report), killing quite a few people. An attempted evacuation of the 17% of voters who marked their ballots ends in failure, as the government forgets to tell the troops blocking all the roads to let the refugees through. The so-called terrorists in the city, still mild and peaceable, help the refugees carry back upstairs all they tried to take with them - the tea service, the silver platter, the painting, grandpa ...

 

The humour is still tender but the tone darkens, tension rises. Characters, individuals, begin to come to the fore - all nameless except a dog, Constant, the dog of tears from Blindness. The ministers jockey horribly for power. A superintendent of police is sent into the city to find the woman who did not go blind when everyone else did four years ago, sought as the link between the "plague of white blindness and the plague of blank ballots". The superintendent becomes our viewpoint and mediator; we begin to see as he begins to see. He brings us to the woman, the gentle light-bearer of the first book. But where that story began with an awful darkness that slowly opened into light, this one goes right down into the dark.

 

José Saramago will be 84 this year. He has written a novel that says more about the days we are living in than any book I have read. He writes with wit, with heartbreaking dignity, and with the simplicity of a great artist in full control of his art. Let us listen to a true elder of our people, a man of tears, a man of wisdom.

 

 

 

 

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