Ensaio sobre a Cegueira [Blindness]
In “Blindness”, I found not only one of the best books I’ve read recently, but also perhaps one of the best books I’ve ever read.
What would happen if you were walking down the street, minding your own business and suddenly, out of nowhere, you’d just go blind? It sounds like a crazy, sick exercise of the imagination, and, while thinking about your situation, you’d perhaps count on the support and care of your loved ones. But what if…what if EVERYONE was blind?
This is what this book is about. The exact translation of the original title would be “Essay on blindness”, which perhaps is more appropriate: it’s a essay, an exercise on what would come of our world if we suddenly stopped seeing it: would it all fall apart, would it go on, or would a new order rise? A man stops in an intersection, and by the time it turns green, he goes blind. A white, bright, unexplained and unexplainable kind of blindness. A man, a “good Samaritan” takes him home and ends up stealing his car. The good Samaritan goes blind right after. The man (known throughout the book as “the first blind”) visits an eye doctor…who will go blind right after. The eye doctor, and the patients waiting in the ward…so it seems like a contagious disease. But it is really? No one has ever heard of a contagious blindness…which makes it all the more frightening. Soon enough, the cases start multiplying uncontrollably. Trying to keep the situation under control, the Government institutes emergency measures, deciding to confine the (at the time) few blinds and those who had come in contact with them in 2 separate wings of a former insane asylum, a filthy, rotten building. Food was said to be provided, but as the interned multiply, the rations go smaller, the filth grows thicker, both inside and outside. Finally, in Ward 3 on the right, a man owning a gun gathers a bunch of outlaws and establish a new rule: the rule of force and violence. The inhabitants of the other wards are to bring all their valuables if they want the food…and later on – all their women. The humiliation, dehumanisation that ensues turns the ophthalmologist’s wife (who had come with her husband, declaring she went blind, when, in fact, she was the only one who miraculously kept her eyesight throughout the entire ordeal) to murder and another desperate woman to arson. A few escape the fire, and we follow the story of 7 characters and their wandering in the now-destroyed city and their continuing struggle to survive until, as unannounced and surprising as it had come, the blindness simply lifts off their eyes.
There are a couple of particularities about Mr. Saramago’s prose which might seem off-putting when you just mention them, but which, in reality, are a big part of the reason why this book is so…compelling and real. Firstly, there’s a slightly disturbing lack of punctuation. If you read to quickly, in the beginning, you risk not understanding a thing, because you never know who’s talking (if anyone at all): long phrases, unmarked dialogues, it’s like a reflection of the chaos described within the book. But, like any kind of chaos, there’s a very strict order and rhythm to it, you just have to be patient enough to find it. Secondly, the characters have no names, they are known by certain descriptors which, given the situation, seem somewhat ironic: the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the man with the black eye patch, the first blind, the first blind’s wife etc. and my favourite secondary character, wonderfully named “the dog of tears”. After all, one of the characters says that the blind need no names…
It’s a truly emotional story, the descriptions are very powerful, the imagery is very strong…you can almost feel, physically, the filth, the stench, the pain. I was reading, saturday morning after my exam, in a coffee shop (I didn’t have time for coffee when I left home) and after an hour or so, when I stepped out in the sun, I was so caught in the book that, for just a second, I didn’t understand why everyone was in a hurry, why everything was so bright or why I could see all that. It might be stupid, but I think it’s the mark of a truly great book – to leave you hooked that way. (Oh, and also, to get a Noble prize 😀 )