Saturday, March 16, 2013

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

Human Nature, Seen.
4 stars
Blindness that shines a light on human nature. Haunting and disturbing narrative.

What if you went blind? What if every one also went blind - in your house, locality, town, country, perhaps even the world? Not gradually, but what if the blindness came without warning, leaving only a milky whiteness behind where once sight used to be? What if the authorities, still seeing, for the time being, not knowing what was causing the blindness, and without a cure for the blindness, and fearful of its possible contagiousness, started to quarantine the afflicted in an abandoned mental institution. Where those incarcerated could not leave, alive. Where no human with eyesight would or want to enter the institution. Such is the fate of a growing number of people in this book. 

Written in a peculiar style - minimal punctuation and sentences that run into an entire paragraph, that evokes a sense of blindness when reading, because you have to grope a bit to get a feel for the language and to sense when one person has stopped talking and the other person has begun, the book haunts you with its matter-of-fact observations about human nature, and how it degenerates into the basest of gratifications.

No one is identified by name. It is the "blind man" who is the first to go blind. He is taken to his house by a good Samaritan, and where his wife takes him to "the doctor", at whose clinic there are others, including a man with a black patch over one eye, a girl with dark glasses, a young boy, and others. Each one of them also goes blind, and each one is herded into an abandoned mental institution, where they must fend for themselves, establish rules of living, and wait for food to arrive. Only the doctor's wife, "the doctor's wife", is not afflicted by the blindness, for reasons unknown and untold, and she decides to accompany her husband to the institution. She herself is in a terrible dilemma, whether to tell the others of the fact that she can see, for if she does, then she is sure to be sucked into a never ending chore of attending to each and every person there, for it would be the decent thing to do.

As more and more blind are stuffed into the institution, the facilities, never pristine to begin with, began to fall apart. With excrement flowing all over, the place stinking with the miasma of this excrement, sweat, fear, and hopelessness. There are soldiers guarding the institution, from a distance, and any attempt to escape is dealt with deadly force.

While there are some rules that the inmates accept with a sense of resignation - the loss of privacy is for instance more of a notional loss in a world with only blind people, you however read with a sense of approaching dread the inevitable breakdown of basic humanity. When the descent into depravity does arrive, it still hits you with overwhelming revulsion. Food for sexual gratification was always on the table, and once a group in the institution decides to and manages to gain control over the food that is provided, it becomes a stark reality that the inmates have to rationalize, and accept.

This is a novel that will linger with you for some time after you finish the last page and put it down. The self-feeding spiral of helplessness and growing resignation makes for disturbing reading. Even the style evokes a strong sense of discomfort and unease, even if the paragraph long sentences begin to outstay their welcome by the second half of the book. Sample this:
They came stumbling into the ward, clutching at the air, here there was no rope to guide them, they would have to learn from painful experience, the boy was weeping, calling out for his mother, and it was the girl with dark glasses who tried to console him, She's coming, she's coming, she told him, and since she was wearing her dark glasses she could just as well have been blind as not, the others moved their eyes from one side to another, and could see nothing, while because the girl was wearing those glasses, and saying, She's coming, she's coming, it was as if she really could see the boy's desperate mother coming in through the door. The doctor's wife leaned over and whispered into her husband's ear, Four more have arrived. a woman, two men and a boy, What do the men look like, asked the doctor in a low voice, She described them, and he told her, The latter I don't know, the other, from your description, might well be the blind man who came to see me at the surgery.

© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.