Blindness (Saramago)

Jose Saramago, 1995
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780156035583

A city is hit by an epidemic of "white blindness" which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women.

There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing.

A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, Blindness has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man's worst appetites and weaknesses-and man's ultimately exhilarating spirit.

The stunningly powerful novel of man's will to survive against all odds, by the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—November 16, 1922
Where—Azinhaga, Santarem, Portugal
Death—June 18, 2010
Where—Lanzarote, Spain (Canary Islands)
Awards—Noble Prize; Portuguese PEN Club Award

Jose Saramago was a Nobel-laureate Portuguese novelist, playwright and journalist. His works, some of which can be seen as allegories, commonly present subversive perspectives on historic events, emphasizing the human factor.

His books have been translated into 25 languages. He founded the National Front for the Defence of Culture (Lisbon, 1992) with Freitas-Magalhaes and others. A proponent of libertarian communism, Saramago came into conflict with some groups, including the Catholic Church.

Early Life
Saramago was born in 1922 into a family of landless peasants in Azinhaga, Portugal, a small village in the province of Ribatejo some hundred kilometers northeast of Lisbon. His parents were Josede Sousa and Maria de Piedade. "Saramago," a wild herbaceous plant known in English as the wild radish, was his father's family's nickname, and was accidentally incorporated into his name upon registration of his birth. In 1924, Saramago's family moved to Lisbon, where his father started working as a policeman.

A few months after the family moved to the capital, his brother Francisco, older by two years, died. Jose spent vacations with his grandparents in Azinhaga. When his grandfather suffered a stroke and was to be taken to Lisbon for treatment, Saramago recalled, "He went into the yard of his house, where there were a few trees, fig trees, olive trees. And he went one by one, embracing the trees and crying, saying good-bye to them because he knew he would not return. To see this, to live this, if that doesn't mark you for the rest of your life," Saramago said, "you have no feeling."

Although Saramago was a good pupil, his parents were unable to afford to keep him in grammar school, and instead moved him to a technical school at age 12. After graduating, he worked as a car mechanic for two years. Later he worked as a translator, then as a journalist. He was assistant editor of the newspaper Diario de Noticias, a position he had to leave after the political events in 1975. This is the darkest period of his life. While assistant editor, he fired 24 journalists who demanded more pluralism in the editorial line of the newspaper.

After a period of working as a translator he was able to support himself as a writer. Saramago married Ilda Reis in 1944. Their only child, Violante, was born in 1947. From 1988 until his death in June 2010 Saramago was married to the Spanish journalist Pilar del Río, who is the official translator of his books into Spanish.

International Acclaim
Jose Saramago didn't achieve widespread recognition and acclaim until he was sixty, when his publication of Baltasar and Blimunda brought him to the attention of an international readership. This novel won the Portuguese PEN Club Award.

He became a member of the Portuguese Communist Party in 1969 and remained so until the end of his life. Saramago was also an atheist and self-described pessimist. His views have aroused considerable controversy in Portugal, especially after his publication of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. In 1992, the Portuguese government, under Prime Minister Aníbal Cavaco Silva, ordered the removal of The Gospel from the European Literary Prize's shortlist, claiming the work was religiously offensive. Saramago complained of censorship and moved to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, Spain, where he resided until his death.

His Noble Prize came as a surprise to Saramago. As his Portuguese editor, Zeferino Coelho, recalled: "When he won the Nobel, Saramago said to me, 'I was not born for all this glory.' I told him, 'You may not have been made for this glory, but I was!'" He used his Nobel lecture to call his grandfather Jeronimo "the wisest man [he] ever knew." Despite the award, though, he remained a divisive character in Portugal, both criticised and praised.

Saramago died on 18 June 2010, aged 87 in Lanzarote, Spain. Described by the Guardian (UK) as "the finest Portuguese writer of his generation," while Fernanda Eberstadt of the New York Times said he was "known almost as much for his unfaltering Communism as for his fiction." Saramago's translator, Margaret Jull Costa, paid tribute to him, describing his "wonderful imagination" and calling him "the greatest contemporary Portuguese writer."

Saramago had continued his writing until his death. His most recent publication, Cain, was published in 2009 ( English translationin 2010).

Portugal declared two days of mourning. There were verbal tributes from senior international politicians: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Bernard Kouchner (France) and Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain), while Cuba's Raul and Fidel Castro sent floral tributes. l'Osservatore Romano, a newspaper run by the Vatican, used its Sunday editorial to label Saramago "an anti-religious ideologue" and "populist extremist".

Saramago's funeral was held in Lisbon on 20 June 2010, in the presence of more than 20,000 people, many of whom had travelled hundreds of kilometres, but also notably in the absence of right-wing President of Portugal Aníbal Cavaco Silva who holidayed in Azores as the ceremony took place. Silva, the Prime Minister when Saramago's name was removed from the shortlist of the European Literary Prize, said he did not attend Saramago's funeral because he "had never had the privilege to know him."

Mourners, who questioned Silva's absence in the presence of reporters, held copies of the red carnation, symbolic of Portugal's democratic revolution. Saramago's cremation took place in Lisbon, with his ashes scattered in his birthplace of Azinhaga and in Lanzarote, his home until his death. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews 
This year's most propulsive, and most profound, thriller.
Village Voice

A bold piece of work — almost biblical in scale and style, hauntingly sustained.
Independent (London)

More frightening than Stephen King, as unrelenting as a bad dream, Jose Saramago's Blindness politely rubs our faces in apocalypse. Its detailed history of an unaccountable epidemic of "white blindness" that inundates the nameless inhabitants of a nameless country makes you fear for your own sight: Have the corners of the pages dimmed ever so slightly? Saramago won the 1998 Nobel Prize for literature, and at 76 his powers have not dimmed: This fable is so unsettling, so limitlessly allegorical—the Holocaust, AIDS and Bosnia come to mind—that it feels infinite. "The whole world is right here," one character tells another. Blindness merely amplifies everyone's fundamental helplessness and interdependence and makes plain the lies they tell themselves to get through the day. As a blind ophthalmologist puts it, his useless expertise an emblem of the surplus with which we all burden ourselves, "Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are."
Jesse Barrett - Salon

Saramago's chilling thriller about an epidemic of "white blindness" that affects everyone in its path is a truly remarkable tale of loss and a metaphor for the horrors of humankind. With such a large and varying cast of characters including young children, a mother and an elderly man, narrator Jonathan Davis gives a truly rousing performance and displays his wide-ranging ability. Each character is original and believable in the face of this unbelievable epidemic. Davis's reading puts his audience in a bright white place, where little is visual save for the listeners' imaginations running wild. Davis's voice paints a vivid portrait.
Publishers Weekly

To describe as allegory this story of unnamed characters in an unnamed city who are struggling with an undiagnosed epidemic of "white blindness" is both too simple and too complex. Beyond any emblematic purpose, the characters act out life with all its paradoxes and hidden truths. Ultimately, the greater meaning here is the simple story of human frailty and community in the modern world. In searing prose, both complex and minimal, all this and nothing more is revealed. No wonder Saramago won the 1998 Nobel prize.
Library Journal

The embattled relationships among the people of a city mysteriously struck by an epidemic of blindness form the core of this superb novel by the internationally acclaimed Saramago, the Portugese author of, most recently, The History of the Siege of Lisbon. A driver stalled at a busy intersection suddenly suffers an attack of 'white blindness' (no other color, or any shape, is discernible). The 'false Samaritan' who helps him home and then steals his car is the next victim. A busy ophthalmologist follows, then two of his patients. And on it goes, until the city's afflicted blind are 'quarantined' in an unused mental ward; the guards ensuring their incarceration panic and begin to shoot; and a paternalistic 'Ministry' runs out of strategies to oversee 'an uprooted, exhausted world' in a state of escalating chaos. But then, as abruptly as the catastrophe began, everything changes in a wry denouement suggesting that what we've observed (as it were) amounts to an existential test of these characters' courage and mutual tolerance. But Blindness never feels like a lesson, thanks to Saramago's mastery of plot, urbane narration (complete with irreverent criticisms of its own digressiveness), and resourceful characterizations. All the people are nameless ('the girl with the dark glasses,' 'the boy with the squint'), but we learn an enormous amount about them, and the central figure, the ophthalmologist's wife, who pretends to be blind in order to accompany her husband, is triumphantly employed as both viewpoint character and (as a stunning final irony confirms) 'the leader of the blind.' Echoes of Orwell's 1984 and images hinting at Holocaust experiences enrich the texture of a brilliant allegory that may be as revolutionary in its own way and time as were, say, The Trial and The Plague in theirs. Another masterpiece.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. What is Saramago's purpose in presenting the doctor's wife as the only person not afflicted by the white blindness? In what ways, and in what stages, does she grow in terms of both political and moral authority? What roles does she assume? How may we explain, in particular, her assumption of responsibility as guide and protector? Why does she experience a feeling of intense, unbearable loneliness at just that moment when the others begin to regain their sight?

2. What is the purpose of Saramago's use of proverbs, folk sayings, and cliches throughout the novel? How does the characters' new reality affect their former habits of expression and create new habits of expression? What are the implications of the narrator's later comment that "if sayings are to retain any meaning and to continue to be used they have to adapt to the times"?

3. As the white blindness spreads, the Minister of Health decides on the necessity of quarantine "both from the point of view of the merely sanitary aspects of the case and from that of the social implications and their political consequences." What "social implications" and "political consequences" do you think the minister has in mind? What social and political consequences does the quarantine itself have?

4. Waking to her second day in the mental hospital, the doctor's wife thinks, "what fragile walls we'd make" against our enemies. What "fragile walls" are erected, demolished, or made useless by the blindness? What fragile walls in your life and community would be threatened by a catastrophe similar to the white blindness?

5. "The whole world is right here," the doctor's wife says to her husband on the morning of theirfourth day in the hospital. In what ways does the mental hospital contain "the whole world"? To what extent may we read Blindness as a commentary on the excesses and horrors of the world of the twentieth century?

6. What meanings can we attribute to the white blindness? To what extent does it represent ignorance, political ineptitude, the absence of per-sonal and social morality, and the failure of imagination? What other meanings can you suggest? How does the "harsh, cruel, implacable kingdom of the blind" differ, if at all, from our everyday world?

7. Why does Saramago provide no names for his characters and their city and country? What are the effects of this namelessness?

8. In what ways do the central characters' experiences lead them to a new kind of interdependence and, at the same time, a new awareness of the human potential for selfishness and cruelty? How do both contribute to the emergence or re-emergence of tenderness and love?

9. What pattern emerges in respect to the breakdown of order and of the various systems that we all take for granted—civic, social, political, and so on? How do individuals, identifiable groups, and institutions of authority contribute to that breakdown? How does the structure of society itself alter to fit a world in which virtually everyone is blind?

10. How do the women in the novel differ from the men in their attitude toward the blindness and the resulting conditions of life? What moral, emo-tional, psychological, and imaginative capacities do the women possess that the men lack?

11. Variants of the phrase "when the beast dies, the poison dies with it" recur in the novel. And we are told that "the mind suffers delusions when it succumbs to the monsters it has itself created." What beasts and monsters, actual and delusional, are the subjects of this novel?

12. In response to the newly interned old man's report on conditions out-side the hospital, the doctor comments, "Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are.... People, too, no one will be there to see them." In what ways might this be true, and to what degree?

13. At the very end of the novel, the doctor tells his wife: "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." What does he mean? How is this judgment related to the first blind man's report to the doctor that his going blind was "More like a light going on"?

14. How does the novel illustrate the doctor's wife's observation that "what is right and what is wrong are simply different ways of understanding our relationships with others"?

15. One reviewer has noted that Blindness conveys "the disturbing notion... that full humanity is achieved only through suffering." Do you agree or dis-agree with this statement, in respect to both Saramago's novel and actual life? Which characters achieve a fuller humanity because of their suffering?
(Questions by publisher.)

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