Author: José Saramago
Published in: 1995
Original Language: Portuguese
Winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature
The First Blind Man was behind the wheel of his idling car, waiting for the light to turn green when he suddenly went blind. All he could see was milky white, like a thick fog.
The White Sickness, as it came to be known, spread rapidly and a chaotic epidemic ensued. Doctors and scientists were at a loss to the cause; they were presented with an unknown catastrophe and could not believe that blindness had become contagious.
The Government, equally at a loss, sent the contaminated and infected people to an abandoned mental asylum. Although the grounds would be guarded from a distance by military personnel, there would be no staff. Now, blind people are arriving at the asylum in busloads, confused and distraught. The rules are repeated daily over an intercom system:
- The lights will be kept on at all times, any attempt to tamper with the switches will be useless, they don’t work;
- Leaving the building without authorization will mean instant death;
- The telephone can only be used to requisition from outside fresh supplies for purposes of hygiene and cleanliness;
- The internees will be responsible for washing their own clothes by hand;
- It is recommended that ward representatives should be elected;
- Three times daily containers with food will be deposited at the main door;
- All leftovers must be burnt, including containers, plates and cutlery which are all made of combustible material;
- The burning should be done in the inner courtyards of the building or in the exercise yard;
- The internees are responsible for any damage caused by these fires;
- In the event of a fire getting out of control, whether accidentally or on purpose, the firemen will not intervene;
- The internees cannot count on any outside intervention should there be any outbreaks of illnesses, nor in the event of any disorder or aggression;
- In the case of death, whatever the cause, the internees will bury the corpse in the yard without any formalities;
- Contact between the wing of patients and that of the people suspected of being contagious must be made int he central hall of the building by which they entered;
- Should those suspected of being infected suddenly go blind, they will be transferred immediately to the other wing; and lastly,
- This communication will be relayed daily at the same time for the benefit of all new arrivals.
“This must be what chaos is, this is what is really meant by chaos” (255).
Blindness is beautifully written. The story itself is thought-provoking and astonishing. There is no question as to why this book won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Similarly, the riots, disorder, sickness, and society upheaval seem quite accurate as to what might happen if a blindness epidemic were to break out today.
“Now, with all the beds occupied, all two hundred and forty, not counting the blind inmates who have to sleep on the floor, no imagination, however fertile and creative in making comparisons, images and metaphors, could aptly describe the filth here” (131).
There are quite a few characters in this book. Saramago cleverly did not reveal the name of the characters, but gave them consistent descriptions, i.e. the first blind man, the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, etc. This technique made it easy to remember and identify characters, instead of names getting jumbled together.
I am not sure if it was the edition that I read or the translation, but the dialogue formatting was off. In passages that include dialogue, there are no quotation marks, periods, or new paragraphs. While this threw me off at first, the book still somehow read fluently and coherently.
There is also a film adaption of Blindness starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo which came out in 2008. I quite enjoyed the movie and thought it was portrayed accurately (as far as book to film adaptations go, that is).
Published in 2004