So… I’ve been dragging my feet on writing this review. I’ve been procrastinating in part because I found a reviewer on Amazon who already summed up my feelings in a beautifully short paragraph. They write (and I anonymize it to respect their editing rights):
This was a book that made me physically ill. While that is enough to give an opinion, I feel it’s still necessary to break down a critique of the book, to show that I read it and why I feel it is weak literature (among other things).
Pandemic and Pandemonium
A man in traffic is struck by a sudden blindness, a milky white blindness that comes out of nowhere. He is assisted home by some good Samaritans—or not-so-good-Samaritans, as it turns out that his car gets stolen by the man who takes him home. From here, things escalate when it’s discovered the blindness is contagious, rendering victims helpless within minutes or hours of exposure. Soon those who have been affected are rounded up by the government and sent to an old mental asylum to be quarantined. Here, left to their own devices and desires, the group of blind people must fend for themselves, at the mercy of the military and their own cruelty and desperation.
I felt this pandemic novel started very strongly, and I was immediately drawn to Saramago’s “collapsed text” style. Just how collapsed are we talking? For example:
Confidential matters are not dealt with over the telephone, you’d better come here in person. I cannot leave the house, Do you mean you’re ill, Yes, I’m ill, the blind man said after a pause. In that case you ought to call a doctor, a real doctor, quipped the functionary, and, delighted with his own wit, he rang off.
I was reminded of Kafka, so this was right up my alley. I felt it added greatly to the sense of chaos and unease in the story. However, if you dislike this style, you’ll find the entire book very frustrating to read.
I enjoyed the near-cinematic composition of scenes, starting with the one driver and gradually building up a cast of characters from different walks of life. For the first third or so of the novel, it seemed to me every scene had a purpose and was pretty well crafted.
Once at the mental asylum, things fell apart fast, like Lord of the Flies on steroids. I could not help but compare the two books, even though their premises are so different. Both propose a kind of blackpilled vision of what society looks like without order and civilization. A proper comparison between the two would take a whole ‘nother post (which I may do in the future). Overall, I found Lord of the Flies to be a better reading experience, which I’ll explain later in this review.
Reading Blindness, I kept thinking, This is like a slice of hell. Except I think that Hell—the actual biblical Hell, that is, not Dante’s fiction—is less perverse. As the Amazon reviewer observed, Saramago seems to think his readers have very little imagination.
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD – Including discussion of violence against women.
My personal bias, going into any book, is that I insist upon plausible characters who exhibit a certain amount of integrity. I don’t mean that they have to be honest people. What I’m looking for is really a consistency in their actions (what I call integrity), or a plausible reason if they do things that are inconsistent with their character portrayal.
Our main protagonist is a woman called “the doctor’s wife.” More specifically, she’s the wife of the ophthalmologist whose office became the epicenter of the early cases of blindness. The Doctor’s Wife makes the interesting decision of pretending to be blind so that she will be able to stay with her husband in his imprisonment. Being the only sighted person at the asylum, she attempts to stay under the radar of the other prisoners so that they won’t take advantage of her. However, she inevitably uses her sight at times to smooth over difficulties, and she also manages to arm herself with a pair of scissors.
So far, I had established this woman as 1) devoted to her husband, 2) reasonably smart, 3) quite self-respecting. She also exhibits kindness and concern for the other prisoners. In short, a pretty believable female character married to a pretty believable man.
As new arrivals come to the asylum, we’re presented with a new group of blind people led by a gun-wielding, sadomasochistic leader. (Presumably, the soldiers were so scared of catching the blindness, they let an armed man into the asylum.) This psycho begins his reign of terror by taking over the food rations and demanding payment for it from the other blind groups. (Presumably, he is doing this out of habit, not because he expects to use the wealth.) The first payment is a collection of all the other prisoners’ valuables. The second payment… ah, you guessed it, too.
I saw the “second payment” coming from a hundred miles away. Which leads me to my first quibble with Saramago’s writing, never mind the content: a lot of the plot developments are overly foreshadowed and predictable. When the story took this turn, I was not so much surprised as just disgusted.
Now, imagine you are a sighted woman in a prison of the blind. A disgusting individual in another ward has just demanded that all the women hand themselves over if anyone wants their food rations. There are a number of men in your ward, including your own husband whom you loved so much you followed him into the pit of hell on earth. You are armed with a pair of very sharp scissors, and there are soldiers outside the hospital ready to shoot anything that moves.
I’ll let you decide what you would do in this circumstance. What the women do in Saramago’s universe is A) voluntarily sleep with a nice guy in their ward first, and B) line up in the psycho’s ward to get gang raped. What the nice guys in their ward do is… um, nothing. Women’s rape fantasies are also alluded to, but in such a way that he completely glosses over the real complexity of those kinds of thoughts, or the fact that such thoughts presuppose a certain autonomy and not an actual, impending assault.
Saramago proceeds to describe the gang rape in a weird amount of detail. I say weird, because he is good at leaving out things in other chapters, but here he felt the need to be elaborate. All I can say is, it was hard for me not to think he was a sick old man. I had to skim over these pages because it was really that vile. The book would have been a DNF at this point, had I not been reading it for a readalong and had I not been, at this point, so infuriated that I felt I needed to finish the book so I could be qualified to review it.
I felt deeply offended by this portrayal of women and men. Stepping back from the graphic content for a minute—it just didn’t seem believable to me. I can think of no woman in my life who would act like the Doctor’s Wife did, especially since there were a myriad of alternatives. Furthermore, is it plausible that any of the other women would forgive her—she, the sighted one—after she practically led the women to this atrocity? And yet she comes out of the situation retaining her “hero” status. This required a lot of mental gymnastics of the reader, and frankly I wasn’t buying any of it.
Out of the Asylum
The last part of the book deals with the blind people’s lives after they manage to escape the asylum. They emerge into a post-apocalyptic world, where it’s everyone for themselves, and groups of the blind roam the streets looking for shelter and food.
After the highly traumatic middle section of the novel, which the characters seemed quick to leave behind them, this section felt almost like filler. There were some scenes I appreciated, such as when the Doctor’s Wife finds food in the dark basement of a grocery store, experiencing loss of sight for the first time. Apart from that, I don’t feel like a lot happened, except the characters managed to clean themselves up a bit after wallowing in sewage for most of the time.
One thing that is probably worth addressing is the portrayal of blindness in this book. Saramago has been heavily critiqued for his negativity in the book regarding blindness and the behaviors of the blind characters. In fact, the 2008 film adaptation (yes, someone thought that was a good idea) was condemned by the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind. I don’t claim to be in any position to comment on this, but for my two cents, I interpreted the blindness in the story to be metaphorical entirely and in no ways a reflection on the real-life disability. At the end of the book, one character describes it in exactly that symbolic way. That doesn’t mean it’s not offensive, only that it’s not meant to be taken literally.
Horrors of the Century: Two Approaches
The last point I will make is a comment on this blurb, found on the back of my edition:
This is an important book, one that is unafraid to face all of the horrors of the century.—The Washington Post
I want to unpack this claim a bit.
First, the suggestion is that Blindness is representative of 20th-century attitudes and atrocities. I would argue that Blindness is exactly why I prefer to read nonfiction on this topic rather than fiction. I have not read any biographies of Saramago, but from what I can read online, it does not appear to me that he personally experienced the kinds of horrors he depicts in this book, whether it be imprisonment, rape, or disability. I have already described the issues I found taking this book as pure fiction. Taking it as allegory is even more problematic. I am not suggesting you have to experience something in order to write about it. Still, when you have significant issues in your writing, and if the intent is to encapsulate real-world events in it, you either ought to stick to what you know or do a lot more research. I would liken this to trying to write hard sci-fi and knowing little about physics—it’s not a good idea.
The next thing I want to point out is that little word: unafraid. The implication is that graphic descriptions of violence are “brave.” I’ll pull in another reference to Lord of the Flies here—I personally suspect some of the same plot developments happen in that novel. The difference is that Golding doesn’t insist upon it, nor does he subject his readers to this desensitization. He uses ambiguity as a double-edged sword, both extending the horror to the full perimeters of your imagination and also holding back information so that you can participate as a reader and form your own conclusions. That is good writing, no less bold, and a lot more deftly handled. (Both of these authors, incidentally, were awarded the Nobel Prize.)
If you’ve read this far… you deserve a prize. Let me know if you’ve read Blindness and if you feel I missed anything, or if there is another book of Saramago’s you would recommend instead.