by José Saramago
translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
Blindness is not an easy book to read, full as it is is with pain, difficulty, and horror. It is the story of a epidemic — one of a milky white blindness — that breaks out in an unnamed city. Only one person (the wife of an opthamologist) never loses her sight.
She both fears her own blindness is imminent, and wonders if she would not truly be better off if she didn’t have to bear witness to such cruelty. Through her eyes, the reader can still see society’s descent into barbarism. First, the government is slow to respond to obvious problems; then they mismanage quarantine; they panic; and of course, we find out they too go blind. The blind may be newly helpless, yet they prey upon each other and take advantage where they can more often than not. (The first blind man lost his sight while driving; the second man went blind after taking him home and stealing his car.)
Saramago uses the literal blindness of his characters to ask metaphorical questions about vision: How faulty is self-perception? How do we see ourselves as individuals, as citizens? How can you find your way? It is not a book to read if you want to feel uplifted about the human condition, as it contains more than a hint of apocalyptic doom. The ironic brightness of his characters’ blindness casts very dark shadows.
How are you, doctor, that is what we say when we do not wish to play the weakling, we say Fine, even though we may be dying, and this is commonly known as taking one’s courage in both hands, a phenomenon that has only been observed in the human species.