Thursday, March 12, 2009

Scarred for Life

On a recent visit, my friend JW recommended Blindness by Jose Saramago. Saramago won a Nobel Prize for this novel, and although it's an impressive achievement, it's as desperate as anything you can imagine.

A sudden and unexplained epidemic of white blindness infects the population. The story follows the small group who are the first to go blind and are interned in a dilapidated mental asylum. Like many of the epidemic/apocalyptic stories I've read lately, this one explores human nature, be it compassionate or degenerate. Saramago's run-on sentences, minimal punctuation (dialogue jumbles together), and unnamed characters convey well the chaos and confusion of the epidemic.

Like other stories in this vein, survival depends on humanity's basest needs: the search for food, shelter, companionship, and a functioning toilet. (I don't mean to be flippant here; let's just say I have a fresh appreciation for plumbing.) Yet Blindness is not utterly without hope. There are many horrors, but some characters act selflessly, wisely, and honorably.

I was worried before beginning the novel that Saramago would have an obvious agenda or message, but his story is richly enigmatic. Near the end of the novel, two of the main characters make a brief and eloquent suggestion of what the blindness might symbolize, but the reader is left to her own theories. The conclusion snuck up on me: suddenly I turned a page to discover I was at the close, and even after all the horror, this lovely, warm, vague emotion washed over me. I didn't end with any clear insight, I simply experienced beautifully written art.

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