Looking for exceptional reading a month after the coronavirus pandemic set in, I took up the Portuguese writer José Saramago's 1995 novel Blindness, reckoning that a Nobel Prize winner's work would be well worth spending time on in these quarantine days. Giovanni Pontiero's superb translation of this brilliantly plotted and paced narrative about a pandemic blinding people rapidly in a modern city gripped me instantly.
The opening paragraphs of Blindness are innocuous enough. We are at an intersection where as a traffic light switches from amber to green, a car driver finds himself unable to move. He (all characters in the novel are unnamed) explains frantically to the irate drivers who berate him, "I am blind!" Soon he is weeping and crying out loud, "I see everything white." A man, apparently a good Samaritan, volunteers to drive him home. They reach his flat, where his wife takes charge and decides to consult an eye specialist. But the good Samaritan turns out to be a car thief; the car keys are nowhere to be found; the car is not where it is supposed to be. The blind husband and his caring wife thus must go to their ophthalmologist in her car. As soon as the eye specialist examines the man, he concludes that this kind of blindness "defies explanation." He tells his patient to go home, assuring him that he will be contacted as soon as he finds a remedy as well as an explanation for the disease. By the next chapter, the car thief, the other patients in the surgery, and the ophthalmologist have all been infected by the white blindness!
In succeeding chapters, readers find out that the blindness is viral. Totally uncontrollable, it disrupts everyone's life. But because there never has been an epidemic of the kind anywhere, there is no treatment for it. By the next chapter (the chapters are not numbered in a narrative that is strangely familiar and yet like no other novel I have come across), we realize that the contagion is archetypal, the novel allegorical, and Saramago a writer with an uncanny ability to evoke a world that is timeless in its dimensions. Reading Blindness in these pandemic days, I kept marveling continually —how could Saramago come up with a book so unreal and yet so capable of evoking feelings and depicting situations that are not unlike the ones we are experiencing now?
The white blindness pandemic, for instance, is "highly contagious" and threatens to become a "national catastrophe." Patients infected, including the doctor himself, find out that people in charge of public health treat them and other patients initially with "half indifference and half malice," suspecting them of exaggerating and even feigning symptoms. Eventually, the Minister of Health himself addresses them and assures them of "prompt action"; of course, nothing of that sort will be the case.
Indeed, only tentative and not well thought out steps are taken to deal with the emergency. People exhibiting symptoms of white blindness are "rounded up" and "isolated"; they are then put in "quarantine" for the time being. The narrator explains that the procedure being followed is from "an ancient practice…inherited from the time of cholera and yellow fever." A part of what is a mental hospital is hurriedly set aside for the purpose. The doctor and his wife (who declares that she too is blind though she isn't), the first man stricken, the blind thief and the patients in the surgery are all taken in. Quickly, all the spaces set aside are occupied by others. Rules are promulgated for the patients in bureaucratese form and diction. The government keeps issuing such rules and rethinking its strategies, urging social distancing and voluntary confinement while increasing the number of places and spaces where the infected could be contained.
But despite the Minister's assurance and the show of efficiency, the conditions of the inmates continue to be totally miserable. Not only is there a crook amidst them in the car thief, there are thugs and even rapists at loose among the new blind arrivals who start abusing the first group of blind internees. Food supplies prove to be a major problem as well as defecating, cleaning up excreta and dealing with obnoxious smells. The inmates, all products of a culture nurtured by the enlightenment, initially believe the blindness as "so abnormal, so alien to scientific knowledge that it cannot last forever." Unfortunately, science fails to come up with solutions to the collective predicament and things get from bad to worse.
The inmates eventually realize they face an existential threat---at the rate things are going and in unending quarantine, they are bound to lose their grip on reality. They realize too that they are being policed brutally and seem destined to be miserable as well as hungry. The medical assistance promised does not materialize; cries of agony fill the complex's spaces. The blind thief becomes a fatality; the other inmates manage to bury him with great difficulty. There are more and more deaths. Burial is a problem because of lack of volunteers to deal with the infected bodies. Fear, terror and anxiety grip all minds. Was "the white blindness...some spiritual malaise"? But no explanations suffice and theology is soon cast aside. The doctor's wife explains what theology stereotypes: "we are all guilty and innocent!"
Inexplicably, the doctor's wife is the only one in quarantine not infected. That doesn't prevent her from being gang raped. Nevertheless, because of her eyesight she manages to shepherd the rest of her group and helps everyone to cope somehow with fast deteriorating conditions. She is, indeed, exemplary in the way she works selflessly and leads from the front. Compassion propels her even though she also proves capable of murdering her abusive blind rapist to break free of him forever. She is joined by a few others in getting rid of the thugs after some time. She realizes that "the blind are always at war." However, she also knows people of "good faith...are always to be found." Her husband has his moments of weakness, but he also utters an essential dictum for survival, "we must be logical." A few others in their group display love and help each other cope.
Eventually, the doctor's wife leads her group out of confinement, discovering that the soldiers guarding them have disappeared. By this time, "everyone is blind, the whole city, the entire country." A little later, we realize that "the epidemic of blindness has spared no one." In streets, things are utterly chaotic; fires rage and dead bodies are strewn everywhere. What she sees makes the doctor's wife wonder at "how fragile life is when it is abandoned." At one point, she weeps for all humanity. Heroically, she finds food for her group in the basement of a supermarket. She then leads the others to their apartment complex, their savior in every sense. The ragtag group members now have the opportunity to bathe and cleanse themselves—bodily and no doubt spiritually as well. And in the end, as mysteriously as it came, the blindness pandemic disappears from their world.
What makes the doctor's wife so special in the novel and why is she spared from blindness? In this parable of a novel, she evidently exists to lead the others to survival but also to make us understand what true saviors are like. They emerge at moments of crises, Saramago suggests, because they have eyes their contemporaries "no longer possess." Or as she explains her role elsewhere as well, "I am simply the one who was born to see this horror, you can feel it, I both feel and see it."
José Saramago's superb novel impressed me infinitely also because of its insights, humane elements and relevance. The name of his next novel, I gather, is Seeing (2004). But Blindness alone tells me what a great writer he is. I am reminded by it of Frantz Kafka's allegorical fiction and of William Golding's novels. The novelist also reminds me of what Joseph Conrad identified as the task(s) of the truly great novelist: "by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, above all, to make you see…. If I succeed, you shall find there…encouragement, consolation, fear, charm—all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask."
I must get hold of a copy of Seeing as soon as I can, but let me end this piece by making two other points. First, the translator, Giovanni Pontiero is marvelous—how did he succeed in making Saramago's labyrinthine sentences so readable? Second, Saramago's book bristles with ideas about the human condition. Don't get the impression from the following quotations that Saramago is anywhere didactic and intent on writing wise-seeming sentences merely to dazzle us, but here are a few examples of how we can think of our current predicament and ways out of all such crises in the light of his novel: "blindness is… to live in a world where all hope is gone"; "if we stay together we might manage to survive, if we separate we shall be swallowed up"; "If I ever regain my sight, I shall look carefully at the eyes of others, as if I were looking into their souls." Finally, from the penultimate paragraph: "I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see."
Fakrul Alam is UGC Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka.