Thursday, November 13, 2008

#64 - Blindness

Over the past few weeks, I've been reading interesting but somewhat bleak fiction. I'm halfway through Oryx and Crake, devoured Hunger and just finished Jose Saramago's Blindness this morning. All three novels deal very strongly with how absence has an effect upon human society. Represented in the protagonist in Hunger, represented in the landscape in Oryx and Crake, and represented in the society's blindness in Saramago's brilliant novel. Why do novels about absence work so well? It's an easy question to answer: because they force the writer to observe, and observation is always at its sharpest when there's some sort of tragedy or trauma forcing it forward.

Like in Hunger, the characters in Saramago's book are not overtly named but referred to by description: "the first blind man," "his wife," "the doctor," "the doctor's wife," "the girl with the dark glasses" (even if she's not wearing them), etc. In a way it makes the plight, an epidemic that causes blindness throughout an entire city (or country), more poignant; it hits everyone and anyone. That is, with the exception of the doctor's wife, who retains her sight even when the rest of the world has gone blind. The opening scenes of the novel are pitch perfect: a man alone in his car in traffic suddenly goes blind -- a form of white blindness (instead of seeing darkness those affected see nothing but white) that spreads like wild fire throughout the population.

Those first individuals who "catch" the virus are quarantined and suffer through a hellish situation as more and more people arrive who suffer from the same plight. The novel doesn't shy away from its central theme: when humans are pushed away from civilization they will act abominably. That's not to say that the core group the novel remains centred around -- the first residents quarantined after becoming infected -- don't act decently. They do and continue to do so regardless of their increasingly difficult circumstances. But they come across nefarious and despicable people as they try to survive the decimation of their society.

I'm not sure if it's the translation, but Saramago's writing style reminds me of Marquez. He writes long, luxurious sentences that examine every aspect of the situation. The allegory (if I'm using that word correctly) of the story almost keenly ascribes the defeat of human society when faced with this kind of categorical tragedy. Old philosophical debates of the essence of the human soul, whether it's good or evil, are apt in terms of thinking about this book, and that's probably why I enjoyed it so very much.

But before I sign off, here's an example of how Saramago's keen observations bleed into every inch of the novel:
Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them come irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings, sometimes the nerves that cannot bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armour, we might say.
READING CHALLENGES: Jose Saramago was born in Portugal so this novel counts toward the Around the World in 52 Books challenge that has been woefully under represented in my reading this year. There's no way I'll catch up now so I'm guessing I'll give up sooner rather than later.

WHAT'S UP NEXT: Finishing Oryx and Crake and Brideshead Revisited (more 1001 Books!).


Rachel said...

ok, I am not an Atwood fan, so I was very disenchanted by Oryx and Crake.

However, I am thrilled that you are going to read Brideshead Revisited. It is a beautiful, atmospheric and multi-layered novel.

I hope you enjoy it!

Melwyk said...

I so love Saramago. I slow down when I'm reading him - I'm waiting and waiting for his newest to arrive at the library. So far I've enjoyed "The Cave" the most.

joemmama said...

Oh man...I loved this book. I also just finished Hunger and couldn't decide whether to slap him or give him a sandwich. I did like it as well.

John Mutford said...

I read Blindness and followed it up with The Road. I found reading two dystopian novels so close together a little overwhelming, so my hats off to you for attempting 3 bleak books in a row. That said, I'd rank both books amongst my favourites. Very glad to hear that you enjoyed Blindness. I haven't heard good reviews for the movie though...

Beaches said...

You probably don't realize this - but were it not for your blog I would not have read a single word since having Bella. I have NO TIME to research what's up in the world of books and feel lost, overwhelmed and rushed in a bookstore with a baby carriage.

I literally write lists from your reviews to take with me to the store. I'm writing one right now so I'll have some material at the cottage next week.

So thanks Ragdoll - you're helping to keep my brain alive.

BTW - I LOVED Oryx and Crake - I read it a few years back - but I'm a sucker for a good distopian, end of the world type read. Enjoy!

Words and Guitar said...

I absolutely loved Blindness. Probably my favorite read of 2007.

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