Sarmago, Jose: Blindness

Introducing “Blindness” (1995), the proposer said a Portuguese friend had recommended Saramago to him. He had then picked up a copy of “Blindness” at an airport in Canada, and, finding it gripping, had read the whole book on the return flight.

José Saramago (1922 – 2010) was Portugal’s most famous modern novelist. He had been born into a poor peasant family in the north of Portugal, shortly before his family moved to Lisbon.  With his family unable to afford a grammar school, he had gone via technical school into a job as a car mechanic. He then worked as a translator and a journalist. His first novel was published in 1947, but he did not gain widespread recognition as a novelist until he was sixty. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. He had been billed to appear at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2010, but unfortunately had died in June.

He was noted for his left-wing politics, being a communist, an anarchist and an atheist. He fell out with the Portuguese Government, who removed a book of his from the 1992 European Literary prize shortlist on the grounds that it was religiously offensive. It might seem rather difficult to reconcile being an anarchist (no state) with a communist (all-powerful state) but Saramago was a “libertarian communist”*. Because of his political engagement with the authorities, he was sometimes compared to George Orwell, with opposition to the role of the British Empire replaced by opposition to globalization.

A feature of Saramago was that he was rather depressive in his outlook. Indeed, that was a feature of the Portuguese as a whole, as was revealed in the Fado, their melancholy music. Portugal was an Atlantic rather than Mediterranean culture, and perhaps the people had more in common in outlook with other melancholics such as the Scots and the Scandinavians than with the Mediterranean peoples.

The proposer felt that what the book was really about was what happened when you stripped away all the structures of society, and took away all the rules. Then you were left with true human nature.

So what did the group make of “Blindness”? Did it open up new vistas, new insights? Did the scales fall from our eyes? …. Or did we see through a glass, darkly?

One reader had started off by assuming the book was intended as an allegory and that the blindness was some sort of metaphor about the state of society, the idea that the human race was blind. The absence of names for characters was perhaps intended to suggest the universality of the story. It was a clever touch to centre the story on the optician’s so as to give the characters sight related names – eg the girl with the black glasses, the boy with the squint etc – and end with the man with the eye-patch blind because of the growth of his cataract.

However, the further he read the less convincing such an interpretation became, and he began to view the book more simply as a sort of science fiction story. While it was quite good as science fiction, the basic plot was hardly original – there were a large number of science fiction stories where a society was struck down by a mystery virus. And while the book started well, it then fell away. There were also a number of implausibilities– why for example did the sighted doctor’s wife not make use of a motor car, or of a torch? What was the explanation of the blindness? Why was there so little reference to the experience of blind people prior to the epidemic, or to the fact that, if blind, other senses developed more?

Perhaps the book should be viewed as partly allegory and partly science fiction.  However, reference to the internet suggested Saramago had not started from an allegorical premise – an idea had simply come to him, and he had followed it through.

Another reader was reminded of HG Wells’ ” The Country of the Blind” where a sighted man stumbles across a remote tribe who are all blind.  Far from “In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King”, the sighted stranger was considered to be a delusional lunatic who was imagining what he saw. Others were reminded of Orwell’s “1984” dystopia. “The Day of the Triffids” (1951) was a particularly close precedent, a novel in which most of society is struck down by an epidemic of blindness, but the hero is saved by a sighted woman.

One reader found it a very powerful, intense work, which had an upsetting effect – in both senses – partly because of a personal dislike and fear of blindness, which the book fed. Such a fear was not uncommon, however irrational. Other writers had exploited this – such as Stevenson with Blind Pew in Treasure Island. Another who had enjoyed the book felt it flowed well, and perhaps had some poetic intent in the original. It did not read like a translation.

For another the book was laboured, and he got bogged down in it. He found the writer rather arrogant – what was there here that was different from “Lord of the Flies” or  “Animal Farm” and all the other similar books? And he particularly disliked the writer’s obsession with excrement. However, he had felt after a period of reflection that it was of value to identify a disaster scenario which completely disarmed the state and for which no provision would be made.

For one reader the book was challenging and tough to read, partly because it was so unhappy. He found the book a trifle verbose, and doubted if it added much to our knowledge of society, but liked the touches of humour. Another found it a pretty damning indictment of human nature, and thus depressing. The ending was disappointing. Sexual issues – including much brutal sex, and some gentle – were a pervasive theme.

Another liked the way Saramago followed through the logic of his thesis, and showed the fragility of human organisation. The book had a sort of attractive grimness, with some vividly imagined scenes such as the rape scenes. There was some good use of irony, and some good word play around the notion of eyes and sight – noting for example how proverbs would have to change as society had lost its sight.

On the other hand, this reader found that there was nothing to lift the book out of the category of a compelling if rather familiar dystopia about the fragility of civilisation. There was no wider allegory or sustained theme of substance, although the author kept introducing little philosophical homilies in an effort to suggest there were. Similarly the stylistic experimentation seemed to be an attempt to lift the book into a higher category, but he felt that the stylistic tricks added nothing to the book, and were somewhat pretentious. It seemed to be a way of trying to signal that the book was “intellectual”, much in the way that some writers took to wearing an “I-am-clever” style of spectacles, an example of which could be found on the dust-jacket of the book…

(At this point your eagle-eyed correspondent polished his spectacles with care and scrutinised them with a fresh eye. Hmmm…maybe of the “I-am-shortsighted” variety…)

The style of the book  – it being written without quotation marks or names and with little else in the way of conventional paragraphs and punctuation – attracted much other comment.  For some this was a considerable irritant and it made the book more difficult to read. Would the story lose anything if you broke up the prose in a more conventional way? Was it simply a lazy way of writing?

Others found the style did not make the book more difficult to read, and did give it a certain rhythm. Perhaps, speculated one, the style reflected normal Portuguese speech and writing? But, no, suggested another – Portuguese language was very precisely punctuated. Perhaps it reflected the way in which blind people would hear speech? But they would quickly be able to differentiate voices. Or did it help you to feel depressed, given the depressive nature of the book? Wait a minute – I found it optimistic, countered another, as some people behaved well and showed true altruism. Or was the purpose of the style to distance the reader from the action and make it less voyeuristic, more didactic?

Or – suggested one who had been researching on the internet – the book was a “tonal poem”. It was difficult to comment on this without reading the book in the original, as poetry is what gets lost in translation. The consensus was that Samago was probably following the lead of modernist writers who had experimented with dropping conventional punctuation, an approach which the Group had already encountered in Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Beckett’s “Molloy”.

(A “tonal poem”?! Struth!! Pass me that bottle of red…)

Perhaps, suggested one, the book was not so much an allegory as a parable. Heads nodded sagely at this. But if so what was the moral point of the parable? Well…how about “I don’t think we did go blind, we are blind. Blind but seeing. Blind people who can see, but do not see.” And thus perhaps the passage about looking into someone’s eyes and seeing their soul. So…..the moral was that we should go about our lives looking at things more carefully……But if so was that not rather trite? Or did we need to read the sequel “Seeing” (2004) to find out what the parable was? Or perhaps the book was simply too vague to leave scope for any interpretation of this kind.

One reader thought the nub was the passage “Before, when we could see, there were also blind people, Few in comparison, the feelings in use were those of someone who could see, therefore blind people felt with the feelings of others, not as the blind people they were, now, certainly, what is emerging are the real feelings of the blind, and we’re still only at the beginning…”? This led on to the revealing of the feelings between the working girl with dark glasses and the old man with the eye patch, a love not based on looks…..But wasn’t this just a reworking of the tart with a heart, not the most original of story lines?

(Oh dear, not much common ground here, thought yours truly, time for another calming sip of red…)

And what was really the role of the Doctor’s wife? Why was she the only one sighted? Well… isn’t it just for the purposes of the plot and moving things along? Or did Saramago already have in mind the sequel in which she is viewed with great suspicion by the government because she did not lose her sight?

We also debated whether the whole world had been affected or just Portugal, concluding it was just Portugal. The fact that the rest of the world did not enter the story perhaps reflected the sense of a parable or fable.

Well, perhaps this extract from the citation for the Nobel Prize would help to clarify things, then?

“Its omniscient narrator [of Blindness] takes us on a horrific journey through the interface created by individual human perceptions and the spiritual accretions of civilisation. Saramago’s exuberant imagination, capriciousness and clear-sightedness find full expression in this irrationally engaging work……For all his independence, Saramago invokes tradition in a way that in the current state of things can be described as radical. His oeuvre resembles a series of projects, with each one more or less disavowing the others but all involving a new attempt to come to grips with an illusory reality.

Geddit now??

(GOOD LORD!!! Pass me that second bottle!!!!)

and what then about all the excrement, wasn’t it quite excessive reflecting some personal obsession a bit like Beckett, oh no I think it would have been just like that in reality and I really liked this description, The rubbish on the streets, which appears to be twice as much as yesterday, the human excrement, that from before semi-liquefied by the torrential downpour of rain, mushy or runny, the excrement being evacuated at this very minute by these men and women as we pass, fills the air with the most awful stench, like a dense mist through which it is only possible to advance with enormous effort, yes it is so important to be able to describe sh*t accurately for example for nurses and parents trying to diagnose illness through its colour, well I have often described books as containing a load of cr*p but never realised that this was a term of praise, indeed I think you could say the book falls between two stools, ok just having a little fun trying out the Saramago mode of punctuation-light prose on you, was what we were meant to see through our blindness the overwhelming case for anarchist communism, if so the picture of social collapse the fragility of civilization and unbridled selfishness was hardly an advertisement for anarchy but that picture was unrealistic because natural organisers would have emerged more quickly, well some did no they didn’t yes they did no they didn’t yes they did no they didn’t, well they started talking about it and the group of seven worked together well and showed there is some good in human nature, well yes when not indulging in group sex and murder, and his characters were pretty flat with little depth or development, but surely the doctor’s wife develops well yes if you mean it is a development that she is content to look on and do and think and feel nothing while her husband gets in to bed with the girl with dark glasses and isn’t the man with the eye patch a self portrait of the author, probably yes if he ends up with the beauty, perhaps the dog with tears is really the best character, but a weakness was that the novel lacked logic, no the logic was overwhelming, no it wasn’t yes it was no it wasn’t yes it was, yes this punctuation-light prose is  a lot easier than doing the structured stuff and don’t you think it makes this blog seem even more irrationally engaging exuberant and capricious than usual as it takes you on a horrific journey through the interface between individual contributors and the spiritual accretions of your truly, well thank you very much so it’s a happy christmas and new year to all our readers and don’t miss the next instalment from your myopic correspondent.

*Learned footnote.  “Anarchist communism (also known as anarcho-communism or libertarian communism) is a theory of anarchism which advocates the abolition of the state, private property, and capitalism in favour of common ownership of the means of production, direct democracy and a horizontal network of voluntary associations and workers’ councils with production and consumption based on the guiding principle: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need“. So bear that in mind as a handy short slogan if you’re out trashing stuff on a cuts demo.