Saturday, June 23, 2007

General Fiction, Jose Saramago

Review for Blindness, by Jose Saramago:

Saramago's novel Blindness is an intense, terrifying, and thoughtful work, about an epidemic of blindness that sweeps a country. Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and this book, even translated from his native Portuguese, proves he deserved it.

He writes with an unusual style--there is no distinction between narration and dialogue, no punctuation to separate the words of different characters. It's hard to adjust to, and because of this it disorients the reader in a similar way to the disorientation of the characters. Like them, we find ourselves struggling to identify speakers, to distinguish people, or to follow new events. As the epidemic spreads, unfortunately, the government and its people fail to adapt to the new circumstances. At first the gov. tries to quarantine all those infected, and house them in a former mental institution to isolate them. There we meet our main cast of characters

7 people, none of whom have names, all blind save the "doctor's wife," who snuck into the asylum to stick with her husband. They are identified by their occupations or their actions only. These seven characters are the first to go blind and to arrive in the asylum, and they are present as more and more people are brought into the asylum. Since they are quarantined there are no doctors provided, no administrators, no firemen, no one to fix the plumbing or bury the dead. There are only soldiers, stationed beyond the asylum gates, ready and willing to shot anyone who ventures too far outdoors. The inmates are left to govern themselves, and it's the criminals who take over, turning their small world into a place of cruelty and violence.

The novel also includes the rest of the country, as everyone eventually goes blind. Saramago raises interesting questions. When faced with an unimagined, widespread handicap, how would people survive? How would a country and government keep functioning? He offers answers to these questions that are plausible and chilling.

Most of the story is told from the POV of the doctor's wife, the only person who can see. I don't know if this was hesitance on Saramago's part to narrate as a blind person, or if it was just practical--readers have someone they can relate to, who experiences the story the same way we do. In either case, it works out. We get to observe, as though omnisciently, everything that happens, and therefore witness all the repercussions of a government's incompetence. The novel functions as a social commentary in that way, and I couldn't help but make connections between its government, and the US gov's response to Hurricane Katrina. Thought-provoking, Blindness is an excellent read and ought to be force-read to any government official who might have to deal with disaster (i.e. all).

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