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Sylvia Sarisky

March 17, 2009.

“Essay on Blindness” by Saramago.

I said I would eventually write an essay on one of the books I read in my

book club. Well, this is it, this is one of the books that has shaken me the

most, and this is an essay of this book. I will, as well, try to explain myself

why and how this book is one of the best books I have read.

I read José Saramago's novel “Essay on Blindness” in September last year. It

was the second book I read of Saramago and since then, I have been hooked

on his writing and his ways to use the vocabulary (in Spanish), and to his

ways, his incredibly descriptive ways to present different hypotheses. I’ve

heard it’s a difficult book for many people, but I have found myself with

fascination on books that challenge the reader with exceptional writing,

specifically, descriptive writing. The story doesn’t have to be exceptional, but

the writing has to be. Otherwise, to me, its a cheap moneymaker book.

I had bought this book, months before I read it, because I read first “the

Gospel as per Jesus Christ” by the same author. My sister from Mexico, who

is an avid reader and a former journalist, had read it, and she told me… “This

is a gospel from a total “human-like Jesus” point of view”. Well, it caught me

from the beginning, and it was just like that, I couldn’t put it down. Then, as I

finished that book -literally I finished that book one Saturday morning during

my daughter’s ballet rehearsals, and that same night started, “Essay on

blindness”, which I finally grabbed it off the shelf last September, determined

to take a slow dive, deep into the novel; this time, I was desperate to start it.

The story sounded compelling to me the first time I read the synopsis on the

back cover: In the book, “…a man suddenly becomes blind while waiting in

his car at a red light. The blindness causes him to see nothing but white.

Soon, those who come into contact with him become blind as well, and the

condition spreads like fire, overtaking the entire city”.

Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, which seemed to bode

well for the book, and my reading of the first few paragraphs confirmed the

quality of the writing. So I started reading and was soon lost in Saramago's

world. My goodness, he is an incredible writer! Surely one of the best

working writers (and alive, he’s in his late 80’s) today.

This book is notable for a few different reasons. First of all, Saramago writes

in a manner that can be quite daunting when you first start reading. He uses

very few paragraphs and little punctuation. Now this, really puzzles me. So

many books on grammar, on sentence structure, and the Nobel Prize winners

just do what they like; no rules and nothing from these books, and yet,

unleashed feelings; so there has, and I mean there HAS to be something,

because they captivate your imagination in a way that seems to have a

magic trick behind. For example, there are no quotation marks to mark the

dialogue, no paragraph breaks for new speakers and many times the speaker

is never even identified. There are no names in this book. This is genius!

The characters in the story are “the doctor”, “the wife of the doctor”. ”the

thief”, “the taxi driver”, and so on. It sounds like a complete mess and there

are, indeed, times when the story becomes really messy, smelly, -you can

read and almost smell the body discharges-- horribly chaotic. However, it

works brilliantly. Most of the time, you are able to follow what is happening,

even though it can be confusing. You typically have an idea of who is

speaking and even when you don't; and it never feels wrong or frustrating.

Furthermore, once you begin to lose yourself in the story, the style starts to

feel natural and you'll find it relatively easy to follow.

Saramago uses this style of writing in almost all of his books, but I think it

works particularly well with Blindness. The style creates a certain level of

chaos that fits perfectly with the story. You see it, you FEEL it, and you are so

close to his work that really helps plunge you into the nightmarish world that

Saramago creates.

In the story, once the blindness has become an epidemic, authorities start

rounding up all the people infected and send them to an empty asylum,

where they are forced to fend for themselves. No one resides in the asylum

to assist them, as they would quickly become infected and blind. Instead,

food is left outside for them each day and the premises are secured by

armed guards with orders to kill anyone who tries to escape. Every day, new

people who have been infected or exposed are brought to the asylum.

The system within the asylum quickly becomes chaotic and hellish. From

urine episodes, to the fights; the sick, the confusion to find the beds or their

way to the bathrooms - to which they just quit trying to find- to burying the

few dead…. Now you have the picture. But it doesn’t stop there, it goes on…

one wing of the hospital is designated for those who are already blind and

the other wing for those who have been exposed to the blindness but have

not yet become blind. The story mostly takes place in the blind wing, which

quickly devolves. Sanitation is essentially nonexistent, stress levels are high,

and the characters quickly begin acting like little more than animals. The one

thing that holds them together is the main character of the story, “the wife

of the doctor” who is not blind. She is the only one immune to this epidemic.

She is the eyes of the story, she is the words of Saramago.

In the story she pretends she is blind so she can function undisturbed within

the wing, leaving her free to help her husband, who has succumbed to the

illness; the doctor starts brave, tough, organizer at the beginning, but then

he becomes desperate, frustrated. He has a brief string of hope and fights

his fears…but he succumbs.

“The wife of the doctor” Oh! How impressive the way she stands as the

emotional and moral center of the story, helping those around her as much

as she can without giving away the fact that she still has her sight, for fear of

what the others will do if they find out.

I think “the doctor's wife” is crucial to the novel. She is the morality left in

the world (and I mean the world, I think this is a representation of humanity),

she is the only one who can literally see what is happening to the people

around her and the love and caring that she shows is amazing. She alone

seems to understand the true scope of what is happening in the story and

she alone sees the full scale of the horror. There is one scene in particular at

night (or day, at that point it makes no difference) in the asylum that

involves the relationship between her husband and another blind woman in

the wing. What happens between them and the way that she handles it is

both breathtaking and heartbreaking, leaving you pained and awed and

thrilled. The generosity in that moment is overwhelming. I have to put it this

way: she was the one feeling the real horror of the blindness, because she

was the only one seeing what no other could see.

Blindness is a story that deals with the frailty of humanity and society. It is

also about being human. But I mean a real human: no names, just

characters, temperaments, frustrations, locked with no option. Pure

humanity naked, which is how I call it. I have to confess that I would have

liked to be watching what was happening in that “asylum for the blind” from

a hidden camera, even given the fact that the hidden camera was the voice

of the “wife of the doctor” through the written words of Saramago. That is

the magic. Those were my eyes to see the mess in that place. Nature.

Humanity bare. With clothes, or with out them, it made no difference. I

looked at them as I was reading. You may be left feeling exhilarated by the

humanity on display through the doctor's wife early in the story, but there

are also terrible, horrible events within the book that will leave you shaken.

The novel deals with a true breakdown in society and how that can lead to

the devolution of the members of that society. There are parts that will leave

you sick and disgusted--appalled at the inhumanity that can, and does, exist

in the world.

Yet, the center piece of the novel –“the doctor's wife- never fails to shine

through. Again, this story is about all of humanity, not just the bad parts of it,

or its body parts -the eyes. There are moments of quiet tenderness that are

breathtaking and devastating, but that fill you with a great appreciation of

just how incredibly kind and generous we, as humans can be - or, how

terrible, mean, unkind and selfish we also can be in the white, blurry and

misty urge to survive. This novel incorporates the full spectrum of what it

means to be human, stripping away society to reveal the basic elements,

impulses and desires of humanity, and I will remind it again: with no names,

only the description of temperaments, characters, problems, and how these

temperaments and frustrations come together in that mess. The result is a

vivid picture! A photograph you can actually see through writing.

In another sense, Blindness probes the fragility of our society. One single

change that sweeps throughout the population leads to a complete

breakdown in societal systems, transforming the human race over mere

days. Stripped off the ability to see, society is forced to change and adapt,

moving into a survival mode that, overnight, makes you wonder, what

happened to centuries of societal training and instruction? Furthermore,

Saramago shows how certain social barriers--age, class and race, for

instance--can so easily be stripped away if given the right circumstances.

The story is tough on drilling into the core of what it means to be human and

what kind of base behaviors we are susceptible to, as I said before, both

good and bad.

Eventually, as the epidemic spreads, the story moves out of the asylum and

into the city. The inmates are left to fend for themselves in a world they can

no longer see or recognize. Again, here, the doctor's wife pulls them all

together, acting as the center of the story and as a pillar of strength for the

various characters. The climax is chilling and it speaks to something greater

within us as humans. I won't pretend to fully grasp what it is, or to claim a

complete understanding of the climax. It is a complicated story, a hypothesis

to be put to test, but I could feel the underlying truths of that scene as I read

it. There is something about the images within the church--you'll know the

scene I speak of if you read it--that dug in and took hold of me. I still don't

know exactly what Saramago meant, but I know I felt on some level,

something extraordinary in that passage about the human condition. And

that, ultimately, is what Blindness is about. The novel is about our society

and our humanity and will leave you both shaken and inspired about what it

is to live, what it is to be human.

One last thought on this book. This book was made into a movie that was

briefly in theaters last year.

The movie was called “Blindness”… don’t bother watching it. It is boring from

beginning to end. Saramago’s magic is in his mastery with the words, his

words are your eyes. In the movie, your eyes are looking. There is no magic

description; there are no drilling words intermingled with feelings to help the

audience get hooked to the movie. Nothing is left for your ears to later

imagine. It’s like a cheap shortcut to a short -if seen with the eyes- very

short story. You have to read the book.