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Blindness    by Jose Saramago order for
by Jose Saramago
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Harcourt Brace, 1999 (1997)
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* * *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

This is a well-conceived and stimulating novel, and deserves the accolades heaped upon it, not least of which was the Nobel Prize for Literature . Having said that, I have to admit that it was a difficult read, and not the type of book that can be digested in one or two sittings. The theme conjures up another book about sudden blindness, John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids , which was a much easier book to enjoy.

Jose Saramago's Blindness opens with the unexpected and unexplainable onset of blindness in a motorist. The setting is a large city, never named - it could be a large cosmopolitan area anywhere in the world. Not only is the locale unnamed, but the characters are also nameless. They are referred to as the first blind man, the doctor, the doctor's wife,the little girl , and so on. Of course, this gets confusing and also somewhat annoying by the end of the book.

Somehow the blindness is contagious - almost everyone who was in contact of any kind with the first blind man succumbs to this disease . Once the authorities realize that they have an epidemic on their hands they round up all the newly blind people and take them to deserted facilities, such as old prisons and army barracks, in an attempt to contain the problem and stop the spread of infection. Not unexpectedly, those who look after the blind themselves become blind, and this spreads to the general populace until the whole network of services - health, police, garbage, media, food distribution and sales, etc. - breaks down.

We follow the suffering of one of the first batches of detainees, including the first blind man, the doctor and his wife, a prostitute, and a child. The doctor's wife feigns blindness in order to stay with her husband. She is among one of the few sighted people left. As the extent of the disaster unfolds, she remains quiet, and acts on behalf of the others as much as she can without disclosing that she can see. Surreptitiously she surveys all around her, witnessing the breakdown of all that civilization takes for granted; how people deal with their natural needs and urges; how some take charge or advantage of the situation and their pursuit of power.

Finally it dawns on the inhabitants of the holding facility that they are no longer under surveillance, no longer getting food or fresh water. The need to escape becomes imperative when a fire breaks out. Many perish but the doctor's wife is able to lead her small band out. Safety proves to be a myth since the outside world has gone mad. Civilization has disintegrated, people wander the streets unable to find food, clothing or shelter, shops have been looted -devastatingly, as gangs scurry around looking for sustenance. The stench is unbearable; rotting food and bodies, packs of released pooches turned into vicious carnivores.

The doctor's wife is one of very few who can actually see the total collapse of society and at times feels she would have been better off not witnessing it at all. We are left wounded in spirit by the close of the book realizing just how close we are to the rest of the animal kingdom , removed from it merely by our ability to see, understand and control our world.

This is a thought provoking book of incredible strength - if you can get through it. The prose is one of the most difficult I have come across. Not only are the characters nameless, but there is also very little punctuation. Sometimes, while reading a passage, you realize that this was dialogue, so it becomes necessary to re-read the piece to make sense of it. This makes the book hard to follow, and detracts from the overall storyline. the reading just gets too difficult sometimes and it is necessary to take a break.

If you're looking for an easier read, dig out and enjoy Wyndham's Day of the Triffids . But if you're able to manage the complexity of Saramago's Blindness, stick with it. It is a potent book and it's ultimately worthwhile!

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