Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
1997 Nobel laureate Saramago was born in 1922 and is considered to be Portugal’s top living writer. He wrote this novel in 1995 and what a book it is! This was our book group choice for December, and we all found it an intense and compelling read.
When an epidemic of sudden blindness happens, the blind and those contaminated by them are quarantined in an old asylum where they are left to fend for themselves. This situation rapidly changes from quarantine into imprisonment and squalor as the blind fumble about – they befoul the corridors as they can’t find the toilets, people get injured and die from infection. The army don’t deliver enough food and everyone gets very hungry. When an armed gang of blind men take over the food distribution demanding first valuables and then women in payment, you are truly horrified where before you were revolted by the conditions. I can honestly say it makes you feel dirty.
But there is just one person in the asylum who can see. An eye doctor’s wife – rather than leave her husband, who, as the doctor who examined the first man to go blind and was himself one of the first group to catch the disease, she pretends to be blind. She secretly and subtly tries to help the others around her without giving her secret away. It is through her eyes that we see most of what is going on – and it is a huge burden for her which she bears with grace and dignity.
Eventually the armed gang is overcome, and the internees realise the army outside is gone too. They escape to find a world which has rapidly become a barbarian place as the entire population is now blind. Bodies litter the streets, everyone is searching for food, there is no clean water, dogs and rats scavenge everywhere. Later there are some marvellous scenes which relieve you temporarily from this grim vision – the cleansing powers of a shower of rain and the friendly dog who licks the tears away.
An astonishing book and powerful commentary on the denial and removal of basic human rights and the question of whether it is possible to not revert to being a barbarian in such circumstances. It was easy to read, although Saramago’s largely punctuationless style takes a while to get used to. The lack of chapters and many paragraphs can make it seem rather relentless. It is a novel that will stay with me for a long time, and I shall look forward to catching the recent film (with Julianne Moore as the doctor’s wife. (10/10)