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James Goodall
Features Writer
10:46 AM 25th April 2023
arts

Going Viral - Part One: José Saramago's Blindness

 
I’ve recently investigated not one but two apocalyptic thrillers along the theme of viral pandemics: José Saramago’s Blindness (1995) and Liam Brown’s Skin (2019). Apposite reading, perhaps, as we come to terms with the impacts of Covid-19. For myself at least, reading these virus-related fables acted as a reminder that we’re not fully out of the woods yet. New strains continue to develop every day, and there is still a need to be vigilant.

On the other hand, you’d think I’d have reached saturation point after the last two years, and books about marauding plagues would be left on the shelf. Also, as a recent first-time sufferer of flu, you’d have thought a double bill of viral reading would’ve been the last thing on my mind. Not the most prepossessing of choices and hardly conducive to a speedy recovery. But hey, guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.

Blindness is a dystopian tale written by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago. The populace is stricken by a pandemic dubbed the ‘white blindness’ through which sufferers experience an optic white-out as opposed to a slow fade to black.

But hey, guess I’m just a glutton for punishment.
The cause is unknown, a mystery to ophthalmological science. No defects are detected when Patient Zero’s eyes are inspected. Nor can it be attributed to any discernible viral strain. Yet the condition does seem to spread person to person, much in the manner of a virus, when the infected come into contact with others.

The story opens in a somewhat Pythonesque manner. Patient Zero goes blind inexplicably in the middle of traffic; a thief steals his car then subsequently goes blind; the doctor who later examines him also goes blind, along with everyone in his waiting room. But the novelty quickly wears off, and we see a tonal shift as the affliction starts to spread like wildfire.

Blindness is comparable to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in terms of its storyboarding. Both describe a circumstance of mass blindness and a resultant collapse of society, and similar scenes play out in each. But there are obvious differences too. In Blindness, the pandemic isn’t attributed to a firmamental disaster. Also, sadly, no triffids are featured. Instead, the novel focusses primarily on its titular theme and has many observations to make on the nature of physical as well as moral blindness: “I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see”. In many ways, Blindness is more of a philosophical read than Wyndham’s outing. But I still could’ve done with a killer plant!

Reading Blindness helps the reader appreciate just how complacent we can be when it comes to such basic givens as eyesight and how we often don’t take time to reflect on and appreciate our health. It emphasised just how easily something we depend on, yet take for granted, may simply be snatched away. As I became more engrossed in the read, I felt a growing sense of insecurity, as if my eyesight was about to fail at any moment too.

The action mainly centres around a ragtag group of characters: a doctor and his wife, a girl with dark glasses, an old man with an eyepatch, a boy, Patient Zero, and also his wife. Interestingly, none of these characters have names. No explanation is given for this. However, the group’s shared condition renders such details irrelevant, uniting them as one homogenous entity. It’s interesting, also, how relationships and values shift within the group dynamic. Blindness acts as an equalising force for them in many respects. The doctor, for example, unable to put any of his medical knowledge into practice, loses his sense of station. Similarly, without the stigma of sight, the girl with the dark glasses falls in love with the old man with the eye patch.

Interestingly, the doctor’s wife remains the only character who can see. She is immune, seemingly, to the infection, although she pretends to be blind to preserve the status quo. Not only is she the group’s eyes but also our eyes, enlightening us and helping us to visualise events. She is a fantastic character, a pillar of strength, and holds the entire fabric of the story together. She protects her group and acts as a hunter-gatherer for them. But she feels the strain, for the burden of responsibility lies solely upon her shoulders. Consequently, she often feels like she is the one who is afflicted and brands her eyesight a curse: “I am not a queen, no, I am simply the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see it”. She then wishes blindness upon herself when she realises her efforts are futile in a world beyond redemption.

It is a harrowing read to some degree. A good two-thirds of the novel are spent in an asylum where the blind have been forcibly interred. Here, man’s inhumanity to man is detailed to a powerful degree. Firstly, on the part of the soldiers who neglect the sufferers and shoot them dead if they breach their boundary. Secondly, on the part of the internees themselves, for rather than clubbing together for the greater good, they resort to fighting one another, snaffling food shares, and abusing toilet facilities – not to mention the various sexual abuses that take place with gut-wrenching indignity. These passages are difficult to process and in places stomach-churning, for a great deal of focus is spent on detailing the build-up of human filth, to the point where I could almost smell it coming off the pages! Eventually, a breakout is achieved. But to what end the escapees can’t be certain.

Saramago writes in the postmodern idiom, consisting of run-on sentences, shifting tenses, as well as an absence of paragraph breaks and speech marks. Having read more of Saramago subsequently, this doesn’t seem to have been a one-off. Post-Blindness, I jumped straight into his 2002 outing, The Double, a modernised reboot of Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name. Here, we find a number of shared stylistic features, including a quasi-omniscient narrator who isn’t quite all-knowing yet is apparently able to access characters’ thoughts to some degree, whilst at the same time professing a startling ignorance of actions that have taken place elsewhere in the past. Saramago’s style may be challenging for some, as indeed it was for me initially. However, perseverance eventually won over any confusion.

Saramago’s style is particularly effective in Blindness, for his defiance of traditional syntactical order mirrors perfectly the broader sense of societal collapse. In this instance, the style fully undergirds the timbre of the story. The Double, however, was less critically acclaimed and was derided for its lack of plot development – an injustice in my opinion. Saramago’s style is the sine qua non to his success. This is what lifts his works to greatness, less so the progression of his respective fables. In the end, Saramago’s novel gives excellent value for money: his pages burst with teeming vigour.



Blindness is published by Random House.