Originally published in Portuguese in 1995, José Saramago’s Blindness is a post-apocalyptic novel about pandemic blindness and the consequent dissolution of a society. Both the novel and the author have received acclaim, and Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. I liked Blindness, but I found it overrated.
Many readers will find this novel thoughtful and complex. The hero is a woman who does not lose her sight but nevertheless accompanies her suddenly blind husband when he is sent into quarantine. She is just a regular person, and yet she selflessly cares not only for her husband but also for the strangers in her ward. There is a temptation to simply read her as a straightforward Christ-like figure, until one reads Saramago’s Wikipedia page. I was also intrigued by how the blind in the ward we read about began to think about their relationship to one another. Incapacitated by their blindness, they are forced to endure many indignities and sometimes sadly inflict them on each other. Rather than turning away from each other in shame and resentment, they join together more fully. To some extent, this is a pragmatic decision — they cannot survive alone as easily as they can together — but I suspect Saramago wants us to think about how easily we view ourselves as individuals rather than as part of a group. Do we forge our proud individual identities in part by looking at others with scorn and indifference? There are many things that we cannot see in others, nor do we see everything that others do, but we can tell that the person with the shoddy clothing, for example, is not me. We can look at those who have wronged us, remembering what they’ve done every time we see their face, and categorize them, too, as not me. As two characters who can see note, “I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”
There are many striking passages in Blindness, but I’ll note that Saramago’s writing style, especially his paragraphing, is irksome. The core premise, meanwhile, seems like a mash-up of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Albert Camus’ The Plague. And although this societal collapse leads to affecting scenes of suffering and of compassion, little of it will seem novel to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction — a ruined city, terrible dilemmas caused by greed and by desperation, disturbing depictions of injustice, and also a doomed-to-fail quarantine.
I sometimes wondered if the plot was too subservient to an overarching theme. Both the characters and the society are anonymous, a choice usually intended to lend a sort of universality to a novel. Saramago’s characters are described by their role or their appearance (i.e., “the doctor’s wife” or “the girl with the dark glasses”), but they also discard their names when they go blind. I found their reasoning unconvincing and couldn’t help concluding that Saramago simply preferred what he could do with the anonymity to a gesture towards realism. I also found the passivity of the blind unconvincing. When they are locked in the wards, they are frustratingly bad at making plans. Perhaps Saramago is simply less obsessed with systems and coping strategies than I am, but there is a surprising lack of planning of the sort Stephen King’s Boulder survivors do in The Stand. I again wondered if Saramago didn’t simply have a vision of his characters as “simple, sexless forms, vague shapes, shadows losing themselves in the half light” that he intended to reach.
Blindness is a good novel, and I know many readers for whom it’s a great novel, but I couldn’t escape a sense of disappointment in it. If someone were to make a case against awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature, they might start with how it distorts expectations. How would I have viewed Blindness if I did not expect it to be as good as Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace? Then again, having read fairly widely in the genre, I’d also compare this novel unfavourably to a number of its post-apocalyptic peers. Its characters are not as convincing as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, nor are its descriptions as haunting as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It at times suffered relative to authors of genre fiction, such as Max Brooks’ contagion novel World War Z, which, though published years later, is more interesting in its structure. There are moments in Blindness that will stay with me for a long time, but I worry that they will not outshine the impression that this was one of the weaker four-star novels I’ve read.