Blindness by José Saramago; translated by Giovanni Pontiero (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.  672 pp.)

José Saramago was a Nobel Prize-winning author from Portugal. He passed away at the age of 87 on June 18, 2010. Although Saramago did not receive widespread recognition until he was 60 years old, he has been highly prolific in the years since. Blindness, one of Saramago’s most highly regarded books was made into a major motion picture in 2008. He is survived by his wife Pilar Del Rio and a daughter from a previous marriage.

Giovanni Pontiero (10 February 1932 – 10 February 1996) was a British scholar and translator of Portuguese fiction, most notably the works of José Saramago. His translation of the Saramago work The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was awarded the Teixeira-Gomes Prize for Portuguese translation.

Speculative Fiction

Speculative Fiction is a genre that either inspires wonder or horror, for good or ill. Whether horror or wonder will be presented depends on the book, but sometimes, an especially talented writer like José Saramago inspires both at the same time. Saramago, in his acclaimed novel Blindness, forces the reader to come to grips with a fictional apocalypse while describing the human spirit with a great sense of wonderment.

White Blindness

In Blindness, a “white blindness” inundates the inhabitants of an unknown country, cursing many with a terrible blight. First, a driver (all of Saramago’s characters are nameless in this novel) sitting at an intersection suddenly suffers from a debilitating blindness where no color or shape is discernible except for the color white. Soon, a Samaritan (a bad one at that) helps the blind driver home only to steal his car. The Bad Samaritan, too, has been stricken with the disease. An ophthalmologist and his patients soon follow. The disease runs rampant and the blind are quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital. The affliction causes the diseased to panic, resulting is mass rioting and shootings. A “Ministry” tries to help the world in a constant state of perpetuated chaos, but to no avail.

The Truth is What We Cannot Bear To See

The allegory brings limitless fear to the reader. The blind ophthalmologist laments his useless expertise, while still recognizing the seeming blessing of the blindness inflicted on his town.

“Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are” (126).

That truth is what we cannot bear to see. Saramago suggests that if one strips away the power of sight (Saramago reminds us that eyes are the window to the soul), evil is what is left. Saramago begins to unravel the town piece by piece, proving that evil is at each person’s core. The afflicted strive for survival in the mental ward of the hysterical .

Vibrant Technicolor

Saramago’s gift is that while his “white blindness” could seem too far-fetched, he makes the story live in vibrant technicolor by focusing on not only the literal human reaction, but the metaphysical as well. Saramago questions the nature of disease, but also the spiritual side of an affliction.

“With time and intimacy, doctors’ wives also end up knowing something about medicine, and this one, so close to her husband in everything, had learned enough to know that blindness does not spread through contagion like and epidemic, blindness isn’t something that can be caught just by a blind man looking at someone who is not, blindness is a private matter between a person and the eyes with which he or she was born” (30).

When it seems like all hope is lost, the blindness mysteriously goes away as suddenly as it started. But, sight is suddenly not as thrilling as one would hope.

To Question Humanity

“Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out…I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see” (326).

Fear, trepidation, and haughtiness conspire to let us do our worst, the author argues. What is perhaps the best about this novel is that while you’re sitting at home, at work, on the bus, or at a coffee shop reading the novel, you find yourself questioning humanity as you know it. Life seems all the more real after you are left speechless watching a world of pure doom unfold, providing more boldness to our humanity than you previously thought possible. Blindness causes one to think, perhaps all too dimly, about our race as a whole. While it’s not the most uplifting book out there, what an incredibly wondrous world Saramago crafted.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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