Books: Blindness

After I raved about House of Leaves, a reader suggested I check out Blindness by Jose Saramago, describing it as “another freak-out book.” I wasn’t really in the mood for another freak-out book, honestly, but I found Blindness at the library and brought it home with the intention of putting it on the bottom of my “to read” pile. But then — whoops! — I read the first chapter, and all of my queued up books were forgotten.

Blindness tells the tale of a great epidemic that sweeps through a small town (and perhaps the world, though the scope of the book is provincial), leaving its victims sightless but otherwise unaffected. The first few chapter trace the web of contagion as the disease is transmitted from one person to the next; then, about a third of the way through, the focus shifts to a small group of the infected who are struggling to survive while quarantined in an abandoned mental institution along with scores of similarly afflicted inmates.

The book was originally written in Portuguese, and translated into English. And I have a confession to make: I have an irrational aversion to translated novels. No matter how accomplished the “About The Authors” blurb claims the translator is, I always feel that I am missing out, that something must have surely been lost in the shuffle. Why can’t these author just learn to speak English as second language more fluently than most of us speak it as a first? You know, like Nabokov did. That said, the language in Blindness is rather stark and straightforward, almost Hemmingwayian, so this aspect of it didn’t bother me as much as it otherwise would.

What I did find somewhat irksome — until I grew accustomed to it, at least — was Saramago indifference to punctuation and grammatical rules. Entire conversations in Blindness are often contained in a single sentence, written in a “He said this and then she said that and then what do you mean?, he replied” manner that eschews quotation marks or any other devices that would aid the reader in determining who said what. Some have pointed out that this style mirrors the plight of the protagonists — that we, the reader, must suffer like the sightless, unable to determine where those voices are coming from in the absence of any visual cues.

Much of the novel plays out like a modern-day adaptation of Lord of the Flies, when men, severed from their old lives (here by the loss of a sense, rather than geographically) revert to their bestial natures. Indeed, the middle third of the book is mighty grim, so much so that, at one point, I almost abandoned it, wondering why I was voluntarily subjecting myself to something so depressing. Fortunately, the story already had its hooks in me, leaving me no choice to persevere.

I did not find Blindness to be a “freak-out book” — not on par House of Leaves, at any rate. For one thing, I was unable to suspend my disbelief enough to completely buy into the premise. But, to be fair, Saramago doesn’t try to make the narrative believable, choosing instead to write the story more as an allegory. (None of the characters have names, for instance.) Consequentially, I felt a few steps removed from the action. And while it bummed me out at times, freaked out I was not. Still, an excellent and gripping read, and one I would recommend.

* * *

20 comments.

  1. “Blindness” of one of my favorites. Yeah, the punctuation thing is annoying at first, but once you get used to it you forget it’s there. The story is really good – the depravity when everyone (and I mean everyone) goes blind for some unknown reason. It’s not an easy read, but worth it in the end.

  2. Sorry to be so anal Matt, but the original language of Blindness was probably Portuguese. Saramago is Brazilian.

  3. For example, the hungarian translation of Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams contains a joke that is not in the original. It’s better than the original one there. :)

    But let me remind you that most of the people on this planet don’t speak english. A lot of great books in the world has not been translated yet into english – and a lot of english hasn’t been translated into hungarian.

    I have learned english for a while and now I can read some books in english. It is great to speak an other language, you know – even on the low level of mine. I must admit that I could be very lost in a long desrciption of anything. Crime and adventure novels are okay. They don’t have much to confuse me. :)

  4. Ahhh, very good. Now I can finally ask someone I admire.

    Matt, was this a parody, or does it really not cross the mind of even an intelligent US citizen, that, if you don’t like to read translated books, you need to learn the author’s language, rather than vice versa?

    I often notice that attitude among my North American friends, and I’m always wondering if they’re serious, or just ignorant.

    Since you’re not my friend, but humorous enough to get back at me with a mean joke to make me look ignorant instead, in case you feel insulted, I hereby ask you that unposable question.

  5. Saramago’s Portuguese, not Brazilian.
    http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1998/saramago-autobio.html

  6. Sounds worth seeking out. Not to add to the pedantry or anything, but I believe the adjective you were looking for was Hemingwavian.

  7. I loved Blindness when I read it a few years ago. It reminded me a little of Camus’ The Plague.

  8. Re: punctuation. You could make the case that he does the punctuation thing in this book for a reason, but he does it in an awful lot of his books. I find it distracting. “Look at me! I’m playing with language right in front of your eyes!” Bah.

  9. Lung: That’s not being anal, that’s raising a very good point. Corrected.

    Thomas: Yes, I was joking. In fact, when I was in the Peace Corps I was hoping to learn Spanish well enough to read some Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the original language but, alas, it turned out that I have no aptitude for foreign language and I was never able to meet that goal. I did read the “party jokes” in some Spanish Playboys though, so hooray for minor victories.

    sgazzetti: Ah, and here I thought I’d coined that word.

  10. Try some works by William Weaver, a wonderful translator of Italian literature. I was introduced to him via Umberto Eco’s works, but began seeking out his other translations once I read his versions of Italo Calvino, which are just wonderful.

    He’s accomplished enough to have his own Wikipedia entry!

    If this is something that you think about much, you might be interested in Douglas Hofstadter’s “Le Ton beau de Marot”, which tackles translation (of a single, short poem) from a million angles at once.

  11. Thomas,

    The problem isn’t ignorance, it’s geography. Most of us took a foreign language in high school – German, French, Spanish, Russian – but it’s a difficult skill to maintain given our isolation from areas where the language is spoken regularly. We are simply never exposed to it beyond high school, thus the skill is never practiced, and usually lost. Our most frequent bi-lingual citizens are usually spanish-speaking, and live in/near high concentrations of hispanic people.

    Europeans, on the other hand, are blessed with a relatively compact geography, allowing them to easily and freely travel among places where a multitude of languages are spoken – thus your exposure to other languages on a daily basis is much higher.

    I firmly believe this is the primary reason behind our differing attitudes toward multi-lingualism.

  12. Scott, I would add to your observation on the geographical aspect of our monolingualism the nature of our history as an immigrant nation. I had a Swedish roommate in grad school who bemoaned Americans’ abandoned opportunities to learn German around the turn of the century, given the influx of German emigres. I had to explain to him that immigrants at that time in US history–and I can count my own eastern-European grandparents among them–were generally eager to leave behind their former land and its appurtenances and become American: they didn’t want to be taken for “greenhorns” or as “just off the boat.” It is a recent phenomenon for immigrants to cling to their language and customs of origin.

    Matt, your friend’s theory that Saramago’s literary style reflects the experience of blindness is an interesting one, but flawed: this is how Saramago writes in all of his novels. Yes, it can take some time to get used to it, but I find that the brain adapts to the kind of real-time stream-of-consciousness it provides pretty well. After all, this is how we hear conversations everyday. The better you get to know the characters, the more cues you have to indicate who the speaker is–just as we use in our daily life.

    Another great Saramago novel is “The History of the Siege of Lisbon,” which looks at how language can shape reality–by following the consequences of a proofreader’s decision to leave out the word “not” in a sentence describing the siege of Lisbon. Fabulous stuff.

  13. Speaking of being anal, in the final paragraph you have “unable to suspect my disbelief”. I’m assuming you meant “suspend”. Yes?

  14. Dear Mr. Yeti-
    I enjoy your book reviews because they are down-to-earth and highly useful. I never need to break out the dictionary to look up, oh for example, bildungsroman. Keep it up buddy!

  15. Whoah…. the blog I was reading right before this has “bildungsroman” in the subtitle and I still haven’t bothered to look it up.

    http://jacquelinepassey.blogs.com/

  16. Karen–

    I completely agree with your theory re: immigrants and native languages. My father’s parents both were born in Italy and raised in the US; my grandmother coming over as a baby and my grandfather as an 8 year old. They refused to teach their children Italian, and would only speak it in front of them occasionally (to discuss things they didn’t want eavesdropped), thinking that their children would get along better as English-only speakers.

    My father says it was done out of a sense both of wanting their children to belong to their adopted country and also out of protection, if only a little bit–an acknowledgement that being openly different was not always the best way the get along in the rapidly changing American culture of the time.

    Re: Saramago’s writing style–I too find it easy to adapt to, though I haven’t read Blindness yet. It works very well for both dialogue and internal dialogue, for me.

  17. Matt: Ah, ok, it was a joke. I should have known that.

    Scott: That’s a very good argument. As obvious as it is, it never occured to me, even though I did in fact spend some time thinking about this ‘problem’.

  18. At the risk of overburdening you with Saramago suggestions, I think _The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis_ is one of his best works. _Baltasar and Blimunda_ is also quite good.

  19. Hi.

    Indeed.
    That book gives you afterthought.
    What in fact is virulent, and a name echoes from the past. The name of the man that wrote The Doors of Perception, Brave New World e.t.c.
    …Aldous Huxley

    Peter Ovesen, Denmark

  20. Quine had a very good theory on the Indeterminacy of translation. To wit, no work translated from one language to another could ever be fully understood in the way the author intended it to be.

    There is a decent paper dissecting the theory here:
    http://www.nickbostrom.com/old/quine.html

    It is an old problem, and not one which has a visible solution. Fluency in a language does not imply that one understands 100% of cultural and societal information presented inside of that language.

    At any rate, don’t feel bad for not taking the time to learn portuguese.