José Saramago’s “Blindness” is one of the most strange and most readable novel from his body of work. The action is always moving forward, there is only one narrator (“Balthazar and Blimunda” has a couple of them), and the narrative reads like a thriller in a crescendo until it reaches an ending that makes a lot of sense in the narrative.
“Blindness” takes place in a nameless city and in an identified time. Suddenly, in the end of the second paragraph a man announces that he is blind. There is no apparent reason for the conditions and his ophthalmologist decides to study the case. But no sooner he stars his research than the doctor becomes blind himself. The government of this place decides to act and isolate all the blinds in an old facility. But that doesn’t stop the blindness to be spread and contaminated the whole town.
The only person immune to the condition is the doctor’s wife who never become blind, but pretend not seeing to follow and help her husband. She becomes the eyes of a group of people whose eye are no longer effective.
For Saramago, this group of people represents more than what they are. Nobody has a name, but they are identified by what would be their most important characteristic in the narrative, so we have, the doctor, the wife, the first blind, the car thief, a girl in sunglasses and so on. This device makes them something bigger than mere human beings – they are the human condition itself.
Blindness brings up the most inner – and sometimes creepiest – characteristic of each person. Killing, stealing and even raping become very easy and the primordial way of defense. Words are substituted by actions – and kindness is not very common.
Saramago is – alongside Antonio Lobo Antunes – one of the most important contemporary writers from Portugal. His prose is not easy and sometime he hasn’t much hope for humanity. But in “Blindness” some light emerges from the darkness in the end. We human can survive a plague and even learn something from it – or not.
He never psychologizes his characters or their conditions. There is no explanation – and it is never important because he is working with how we deal with the unexpected and unknown, and not from what they come. In the end everything makes perfect sense and the characters are no longer the same – nor is the reader, who has seen a little more about human condition.