José Saramago: Blindness

On re-reading and “reviewing” — ergo, to see, again.

The plan was to read a Saramago by the 16th of November. It could have been another Saramago. Besides, I still remembered the anguish in this one. But was that all? Could an honest reader claim to have read this if that’s all they gathered?

The questions prompted a re-reading. After all, this reader of thirty-eight Novembers makes an effort to re-read at least one book a year from callow years. Blindness beckoned.

Oh, to realize that the first victim of the epidemic of blindness in the story, who used to seem so much older, is exactly as old as I am now!

It took several pages to re-acclimatize to the disorienting treatment of dialogue: But I now grasp how this effectively amplifies an incessant tension, immensely effective that the suspense still made my palms sweat. 

Soon enough, neglected passages from the first reading began to hit differently: “Government of the blind trying to lead the blind” leapt off the pages from fiction to palpable reality. And I ask, is the book still considered dystopian when we already experienced similar things at the onset of the pandemic — the messy government response, the fear of the unknown, the unforeseen future, deaths, confusion, chaos, the stumbling in the dark, the uncovering of the best and the worst of humanity?

It is also only now that I understand why the characters were not given names: “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” I had failed to notice that this novel is essentially a look at human behavior when left to fend for itself in the dark, beheld under Saramago’s powerful, magnifying lens.

Yes, there is anguish and barbarity; it’s every man for himself. But as an older reader who has seen more darkness in the world than when I first read this, the opposite is highlighted this time, and it is compassion and kindness that shines through.

There is anguish, but I can also emphasize how a book about blindness can open our eyes; and I will, instead, point to the selfless acts, that glorious moment when the three women bathe naked in the rain, and those moments when the only person who retains her eyesight reads a book to those who have gone blind.

“The only miracle we can perform is to go on living, said the woman, to preserve the fragility of life from day to day, as if it were blind and did not know where to go, and perhaps it is like that, perhaps it really does not know, it placed itself in our hands, after giving us intelligence, and this is what we have made of it…”

To go on living. José Saramago couldn’t have given me a better message on the 16th of November, the birthdate he and I share.