by José Saramago
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Blindness / 0-15-600775-4
I saw "Blindness" the movie before reading the book, and while I didn't care for the movie (for many of the same reasons I didn't care for the book), I have to at least give the movie credit for attempting to genuinely stick to the book as much as they did - a rarity these days, it would seem.
Let me start out by saying that I appreciate the point (or, rather, some of them - with a book this deep, I probably missed a point or two) that Saramago is making. And if I dinged the movie for credibility and realism, I can at least grant that back to the book on the grounds that its 'unrealism' (such as immediately tossing all the blind into an asylum to die, rather than attempting to study them, even from afar) seems to be almost a dreamy, magical un-realism - not unlike something Marquez or Gordimer would write. And I respect that, and enjoy that style of writing to a point.
There's a lot to appreciate here, in fact. Saramago has attempted to simulate the frustration and terrifying nature of being suddenly and helplessly struck blind with unorthodox writing choices - such as giving the characters no names, only descriptions that are meaningless to us because we cannot see them, and by failing to separate any of the dialogue out from the narrative - characters talk in run-on "conversations" with only commas separating the speakers. And while I appreciate this creative and clever attempt to confer onto the reader the same helplessness and frustration that the blind characters are experiencing, it is worth noting that this writing style will - at the end of the day - leave your reader feeling helpless and frustrated. And while this may be a minor point for some, I did find it irritating that I would often have to re-read large passages because I had lost track of who was saying what. I also do not much care for Saramago's propensity to interrupt the narrative with "Now, Dear Reader" didactic direct narrative, but that's a personal choice of mine.
Fundamentally, my problem with the novel is the same problem I ultimately had with the movie, which is thus: if the idea is to show the reader that, in the absence of societal controls and norms, we are all capable of murderous, rapacious, disloyal behavior (each according to various levels of opportunism, need, desire, and so on), then this point seemed to be somewhat undermined by the tight strictures that seem necessary in order to bring these events about. The 'bad' elements within the ward are given advantage after authorial advantage, while the 'good' elements are hampered with unrealistic constraints preventing them from fighting or fleeing their oppressors. On top of that, characters seem fundamentally passive because the story requires them to be - it seems unnatural to me that more of the 'good' blind people would not fight back, given their superior numbers, their repressed rage at the situation, and the fact that their chance of dying seems fairly low.
To my mind, this just isn't a Gordimer story ("Jump and Other Short Stories") where institutionalized racism leads inevitably to fenced communities and then to spikes on the gates and then to little boys tragically impaling themselves. Instead, the sequence of events in "Blindness" often feels forced and awkward - and as a general rule of mine if you have to bend or break rules of human nature in order to make a point about human nature, your point is somewhat undermined in the process.
I guess I should say that I appreciated this book from an artistic standpoint - the ideas are genuinely interesting, the result is truly frightening and alarming, the points are potentially valid. But the frustrating writing style and forced un-realism of the characters' actions and reactions undermined my enjoyment of the novel and I was grateful when it was finally time to set the book down and move on.
~ Ana Mardoll
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