Peder with a D

[plays well with others]

Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

Ensaio sobre a Cegueira — Essay on Blindness

Posted by Peder on 24 November 2008

Blindness, the bookI recently finished reading the novel Blindness by José Saramago, a Nobel laureate in literature.  It was a very captivating book and I’m glad to use it as the basis for this, my first review on this blog.

The book tells the story of a blindness epidemic which sweeps a city and a nation.  Reacting to the outbreak, the unnamed government attempts to quarantine those affected, but as the disease spreads to every last individual, anarchy ensues.  We first see this breakdown in the abandoned asylum set aside for those early victims.  As the military forces charged with the monitoring and care for those inside abandon their posts over fears of becoming blind themselves, the food deposits upon which the blind inside rely are no longer delivered.  Within the walls those with weapons, power and the constitution to use them to their benefit hoard the food and demand payment for anyone else who wants to eat.  Faced with tyrannical treatment from inside as well as out, the quarantined riot and burn the place down in what can reasonably be seen as an essay on the predictable destruction of a society — or maybe I’m just a closet-anarchist.

Those few who are able to get out walk blindly into a world they no longer recognize.  Not only has their disease painted their entire world white, but the entire society from which they were hidden has deconstructed in their absence.  Governance, law and order are no more.  Food is scarce.  Filth and the remains of the dead pile up on every street and city plaza.

Most of the story is told through the eyes of the one person who has retained her sight.  Simply called “the doctor’s wife” — her husband is an ophthalmologist — the reluctant heroine leads a ragtag group of the earliest victims through the horrors of their new world, and takes upon herself the great burden of taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves in a world devoid of order.  Interestingly, there are many mentions of morality and appropriate behavior throughout the story, particularly regarding the role of family and deference to government and order.  Very often they come across as overly old-fashioned and I wondered if I simply did not have the same values as a European author born in 1922.  But as I reflected, I realized they appeared tiresome and out-dated because they represented an effort to apply traditional values to a now-valueless world.  So much of our own societies are built upon the rule of law and the strength of family, and this story was premised on the sudden retraction of those institutions.

As the book moves on, and the characters’ lives continued to devolve I kept wondering how this story could possibly resolve itself.  But Señor Saramago takes a clue from the late, great H.G. Wells and ends the story with an anti-climax.  In War of the Worlds, the planet was in great peril and could not seem to find a way to defeat its alien invaders.  So H.G. Wells simply introduced the concept of viral infection — that the aliens couldn’t handle the cellular “bugs” for which we’ve grown immunity, and *tada!* the aliens die off and order is restored.  (When the story was turned it into a movie a few years back I remember hearing movie-goers groan at how simplistically that Happy Ending was reached.  Little did they know that Steven Spielberg actually followed the original story for once!)  Sadly, in a similar nod to what I sarcastically guess is an I’m-done-writing-now-let’s-just-finish-this-book attitude, Saramago spends about a page and a half explaining how, just as curiously as people lost their sight, they suddenly gained it back.  Hooray!  THE END.

Boo.  And this guy won the Nobel Prize for Literature 10 years ago.  Double-boo.

But I suspect the point of writing the book was not to find some unique twist that saves the day.  Rather it was to show the systematic breakdown of society and the chaotic reaction of the human organism to such unfathomable horror.  For that, this book did a good job; throughout much of the book it is surprisingly difficult to put down.  But again, that’s not for lack of trying by Señor Saramago.  His writing style is without quotation marks, has few sentence breaks and even fewer paragraph breaks.  It can be very difficult to read, as your eyes move so quickly over a text without stop or yield signs it can be very easy to lose track of who’s talking or what they’re talking about.  However, in counter point, the style does provide an added effect of confusion and disarray during the story’s many chaotic scenes.  At first I thought that was the intended effect, but then I read on Wikipedia that the author is known for this style and he uses it a lot.  Adding to the challenge of its reading, the book has been translated from its native Portuguese, which naturally added a couple hiccups as a second language can never capture the intended effect of a story’s original text.  Well, I guess you can’t have it all, can you?

Blindness, the filmYou might be already familiar with the story line as it was turned into a major motion picture, set to be released in the US sometime this fall.  I’m having difficulty determining whether the film has already had its run in theaters, or if it’s still on the horizon, but in either case I’m determined to see it, whether that means I rent the video or buy a ticket.  Take a look at the trailer below.  Very exciting!

Lastly, a note on the book’s title, the original Portuguese name means “essay on blindness,” for which Saramago has written a sequel called Ensaio sobre a Lucidez meaning “essay on lucidity,” translated in English as Seeing.  The story involves many of the same characters and takes on a political “epidemic” of non-vote ballots cast by a populace.  I have a variety of other books on my To Read list, and I’ll need a break from Señor Saramago’s style, but I look forward to reading his take on a different kind of societal degradation.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »