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‘Blindness’ by José Saramago

At a traffic signal in an unnamed city, as the green light comes on, a car is unable to move. The driver frantically tries to explain what is holding him up — “I am blind”. People crowding around his stalled car cannot believe it. “Seen merely at a glance, the man’s eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain.” Through the car windows, people ask what he can see. “Nothing, it’s as if I were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea,” he replies. But blindness is black, retorts one fellow. “Well, I see everything white.”

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Eerie resonance

Portuguese writer José Saramago’s 1995 novel, Blindness, translated into English by Giovanni Pontiero, begins in this dramatic fashion, with a driver suddenly going blind while waiting at the traffic lights. The ophthalmologist he consults also gets afflicted before he can read up on the strange white blindness. Soon, it becomes a contagion, providing an eerie resonance to the horror sweeping the world today in the form of a virus and other hurts, past and present, like war, hunger, deprivation.

The ophthalmologist waits anxiously for “the light of day” knowing very well that he will not see it. But he feels it is his duty to inform the health authorities and warn them of the possibility of this highly contagious blindness becoming a national catastrophe. When he tries to reach out to someone in the Health Ministry, his call is rudely cut off, prompting him to mutter: “This is the stuff we’re made of, half indifference and half malice.”

The Health Ministry works feverishly to thwart the social implications and political consequences. They round up the ophthalmologist and all the people who have gone blind and put them in indefinite quarantine in a mental hospital. The ophthalmologist’s wife has not yet turned blind, but she pretends to have lost her eyesight just to be with her husband. Slowly, the asylum fills up with people, some crying, others trying to console.

Blind but seeing

Soon there is a dearth of everything from food and water to discipline and order. Those who have power — blind thugs — terrorise the powerless. People are forced to go hungry, several get killed, women are raped and chaos reigns, giving us a glimpse of how a crisis can break down both the individual and society. Some of the inmates finally escape when a fire breaks out, stumbling into a world which has also gone blind: “We’re going back to being primitive hordes... with the difference that we are not a few thousand men and women in an immense unspoiled nature, but thousands of millions in an uprooted, exhausted world.” People begin to get their eyesight back slowly, even as the doctor’s wife, who has held their hands throughout, says, “Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, 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.”

It is not an easy novel to read, with its long run-on sentences. Like Kafka and Camus, Saramago creates a world upended by forces beyond our control.

Saramago was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 for writing “parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony,” which enable readers to “apprehend an elusory reality.” An atheist and communist, he passed away in 2010, leaving behind a rich body of work, including novels like Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

In 2004, he wrote a sequel to Blindness. In Seeing, another parable for the times, a majority of the population of an unnamed city choose to exercise their franchise by polling blank votes. The government is enraged and democracy soon drifts towards totalitarianism.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

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Printable version | Aug 2, 2021 2:37:40 PM |

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