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.