Blindness, by José Saramago

I like this book.
Saramago, a Portuguese writer, knows what most of us writers don’t – how to tell a story, mostly in narrative, and to dole his suspense out over nearly every page, leaving no arid spots for the reader to skip over.
I’ll have to admit, though, that his narrative turned me off initially. His style—or as it has been translated (more on that later)—is difficult, to say the least. He eschews punctuation, particularly quotation marks and the usual placement of periods. In a given scene, his characters’ dialogue runs together, in a paragraph, even within a sentence. He changes from past tense to present, from declarative to subjunctive moods within these often-page long passages. But it’s done consistently, and eventually I fell into his way of writing. And stayed there with something approximating ease.
Blindness’ story is one of the most compelling I've read in years, perhaps better than J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians. A man driving an urban street suddenly goes blind. His wife takes him to an eye doctor, who finds nothing wrong with his sight. Soon, everyone coming in contact with the first man goes blind, and the “contagion” spreads. Government officials attempt to contain the blindness by jailing those going blind.
And at this stage Saramago’s point in writing such a tale becomes evident. Without the visual sense, his cloistered people must learn to cope, both individually and as a group. The manner in which they go about such attempts becomes spellbinding as we learn more about them, their weaknesses, strengths, and personal histories. Saramago could hardly tell the tale in intimate fashion without some sighted person, and he allows one to retain sight, this seemingly fortuitous turn becoming a curse to the sole, female narrator.
Saramago has been termed a pessimist, but this story ends relatively well, without the nihilism Cormac McCarthy leaves his readers with at story’s end. But his perception of humanity isn’t Pollyanna stuff. He allows them to nurture every degree of depravity, including a spiritual void that seems only resolvable by death. That few of his characters survive does leave one with a bitter taste regarding what lies beneath civilization’s thin veneer, and that’s clearly where his human vision melds with that of Coetzee and McCarthy.
Blindness has, according to the book credits, been translated multiple times: by Giovanni Pontiero, who died during translation, by Margaret Jull Costa, who finished Pontiero’s work, and by Juan Sager. To my rather linguistically uneducated mind, these translators stayed extremely close to the characteristic tone of Romance languages while leaving the reader with a fluid, expressive English version of Saramago’s odd narrative style.
The book has been made into a movie, no small feat for such a narrative-obsessed piece of writing, crimped by character blindness. And here I have to say something more about Saramago’s style.
The normal convention of quotation marks, periods terminating sentences ending with a person’s dialogue or with the end of a thought, has its purpose. Such punctuation serves as silent stage directions to assist the reader. Today, many editors and critics refer to “reader’s comfort” or to “reader expectations” regarding style as something of a pejorative. Perhaps that’s appropriate. But writers as stylistically capable as Saramago come along once in a lifetime; such experimentation may eventually force new conventions, but in the hands of lesser writers, it can stand between writer and reader and/or attempt to conceal a writer’s literary shortcomings.
That I fail to hold Saramago liable for such sins is hardly faint praise.


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