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22nd March
2010
written by Steph

I don’t write about it very frequently on this blog, but many of you know that by day (and sometimes by night) I am a PhD student in Psychology.  My research interests have fluttered about over the years as can only be expected in a five-year program, but within the expansive field of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, I’ve always focused on examining cognitive processes related to visual perception (read: how the brain processes things that we see).  The department I’m in is great for all things vision, perhaps to the detriment to the four other senses, which is something visiting speakers and researchers ALWAYS joke about… what can I say: in academia, the jokes are rarely good. Anyway, all of this preamble is simply meant to establish that when it comes to the topic of vision, I may be slightly more passionate than the average person. I didn’t know much going into this novel, other than the obvious – a mysterious plague besieges humanity, causing everyone to go blind.  Other than that, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen or where the story would go, and I’m kind of glad for that, so I don’t think I’ll say much more, other than the fact that one person is saved from this blindness and it is through her eyes that we see the devastation that results when humankind is robbed of sight. I had heard from a friend that Blindness was a pretty dark novel (she brought it with her on a beach vacation, and soon decided it was maybe not really appropriate poolside reading material), but despite the warning I still was not really prepared for just how horrific and harrowing it would be.  It is told in Saramago’s inimitably graceful and fluid style, but the events he recounts are truly chilling and disturbing, moreso than I ever could have anticipated.  There are stark and frank descriptions of squalor, cruelty, helplessness, and violence; the picture Saramago paints of a sightless humanity is not kind and is generally quite bleak. While reading, I was often reminded of the desperation and brutality that courses through Cormac McCartney’s The Road, so if you’ve been steering clear of that novel due to its difficult subject matter, you might be well-advised to give Blindness wide berth as well. It is a difficult narrative, both in terms of content as well as style (Saramago writes in a very “stream of consciousness” manner, one that eschews much punctuation and conventional dialogue markers), but it was one I found very rewarding.  One of the things I love about Saramago’s novels is that they are so provocative and really make me think and contemplate.  Sometimes his scenarios are rather banal, other times extreme, but I always think they spark with vitality and are kind of genius for what they reveal.  Here Saramago uses blindness as means of examining so many interesting ideas and issues: self-identity, society & normative influences, civility, hope, freedom, wisdom and insight. There are so many powerful images throughout the book (one of my favorite, and the one I found the most compelling is near the very end and involves a church) and so many rich and profound ideas that as difficult as the book can be, it is clearly one that deserves multiple readings.  It’s a novel that I think would make for a tremendous bookclub experience, and I will probably be foisting it on Tony sooner rather than later so that we can discuss it together. One notion that I found particularly compelling was the idea of personal accountability.  Classic psychology experiments suggest that we act very differently depending on whether we believe our actions are being observed or not – generally we feel pressure to behave in “socially acceptable” ways when we think we can be held accountable for our actions, but we may revert to more base instincts if we think we can get away with it.  What I thought was especially interesting in Saramago’s examination of this idea was not just that people’s actions were going unobserved by all of those around them, but perhaps more importantly he looks at what happens when we can no longer see our own self.  I really liked the idea that even if one has sight, if we are to continually look into the unseeing eyes of others, we may ultimately begin to lose the ability to see ourselves, that the eyes of others reflect us back on to ourselves. If you’ve not read the book, skip this following paragraph, because I’m going to wonder “aloud” about certain elements of the book that I haven’t been able to reconcile.  Look, I'm even going to blind you to them, so you don't inadvertently spoil yourself!  Highlight the white space to read: One thing that I found myself wondering throughout the book is the origins of the blindness – why did it strike in the first place, and more importantly, why was the doctor’s wife the only one who did not ever lose her sight?  Furthermore, what accounts for the sudden remission of the blindness outbreak? I have to admit, I was kind of expecting that the book would end with no cure in sight (pun intended?), or potentially with the doctor’s wife finally succumbing to the pandemic. That didn’t happen, and I have to say, I’m not sure what Saramago meant by offering his characters the reprieve he did. There’s a lot of good - albeit tricky and messy - stuff to dissect in this book, so if you have the courage to take on a book that is not always easy, I urge you to do so.  I will say that this isn’t my favorite Saramago, though it’s hard for me to pinpoint why.  I haven’t read his oeuvre extensively by any means, but there was something about the other book of his that I’ve read (All the Names, which I talked about here) that I found slightly more captivating and affecting.  The subject matter in Blindness is undeniably more provocative at its core, but perhaps that rampant brutality caused me to develop a defensive numbness/disengagement that meant I wasn’t going to latch on to this novel as I did All The Names.  Or perhaps we love our first Saramago best of all. Although one can tell almost immediately that this is a Saramago novel, there was something about the writing that I felt just a little let down by.  I felt like All the Names was more deliciously enigmatic, whereas the prose here seemed more obvious and almost like it was just slightly lacking some subtlety.  One thing that did bug me is that the characters in the novel, and sometimes the narrator too, are always talking in clichés and using platitudes to sum up the situation.  For whatever reason, I just found the constant inundation of bromides to be really tiresome and annoying. Anyway, nebulous personal preferences about writing aside, this is a sensational novel that I highly recommend.  While reading it, I could not help but think about what I would do in a similar situation, and my stances were sometimes surprising. But one thing I decided that other researchers can say what they want, but sight is the one sense I don’t think I could do without, and for that I don’t think it can ever be overrated!  I am also interested in watching the film version, just to sate my curiosity.  I kind of don't know how this book could be successfully translated into a movie as so much of the story hinges on the characters' internal lives, and I think a film would have a harder time conveying the psychological horrors of being blind, but we shall see! Rating: 4 out of 5

17 Comments

  1. 03/22/2010

    This sounds really, really interesting. I liked The Road, and I’ve been curious about this book for awhile. Time to try Saramago I think.

  2. 03/22/2010

    I think this might be one for me to avoid, as I get squeamish about descriptive violence. Too bad, though, it sounded really interesting. I have Death With Interruptions by Saramago on my shelf and am really looking forward to it. I’ve never read anything by him.

  3. I am really pleased that you enjoyed this book – it is one of my favourites.

    SPOILERS!
    I hadn’t really thought about the questions you ask. I guess that he ended it with everyone regaining their site so that it ended on a positive note. I liked the fact there was hope for the future instead of endless darkness.

    I think the wife only kept her sight as it was important for someone to be able to see what was going on. I’m not sure Saramago has a medical justification for it.

    I’ve just started to read Seeing. I’ll let you know my thoughts soon.

  4. 03/22/2010

    I have had this book on my shelf for awhile now and must admit that I have been a bit intimidated about it. I have heard other reviewers say that it is a powerful, but disturbing read. I have not yet read The Road either, so I am not sure if the subject matter would be too dark for me, but after reading your review, I am placing this book higher in my priorities. I also think that I would be interested in All the Names, not only for the comparison between these two books, but also because you rated it so highly. I really liked this review, and even though I skipped over the spoilers, I feel that I have a better grasp of the book and what it has to offer me now.

  5. 03/22/2010

    This sounds way too bleak for me, even though I love the idea of using blindness to explore the issues you mentioned: “self-identity, society & normative influences, civility, hope, freedom, wisdom and insight.” And what a provocative thought about how our own conception of ourselves changes when we can no longer see our own self. This sounds really fascinating,

  6. 03/23/2010

    @ Sarah: I think you’ll really enjoy Saramago, and if you enjoyed The Road then I think you’ll do just fine with this one!
     
    @ Amanda: Given that you don’t enjoy graphic depictions in your fiction, I do think this might be a book you’re better off avoiding. But there are plenty of other things by Saramago that you can try instead!
     
    @ Jackie: I know this is one of your favorite books, so I was really excited going in! It did not disappoint!
    Re: SPOILERS!!! I wasn’t exactly hoping for a medical explanation for the blindness, but I thought that perhaps that blindness was meant to symbolize something, and I wondered if there was a specific reason (philosophical or otherwise) why the doctor’s wife was spared. But perhaps it’s as you said, and Saramago just needed someone who could still see to tell the story.
     
    @ zibilee: There’s really no need to be intimidated by Saramago! Yes, his writing is not very traditional, but I find the fluidity to be pretty accessible and not necessarily all that challenging. In terms of this book, I found the content much more difficult than I did the writing, but I don’t think it’s something that you couldn’t handle.
     
    @ Jill: For me, even though there were rough patches, I found the book worthwhile because of all the interesting ideas that it presented. I thought it was worth it, but I do see (ha!) that it wouldn’t be a good fit for every reader.

  7. 03/22/2010

    This does sound very bleak but I have heard so many POSITIVE things about it, I may give it a try in the future anyway! Same for THE ROAD.

  8. 03/22/2010

    Until I read Death with Interruptions, Blindness is my favorite of Saramago. The visual from the movie only compounds the disturbing factor of the book. I enjoy reading your thoughts from a psychological perspective. There is indeed a huge difference between seeing and being able to see. It takes others’ eyes to see through ourselves, is what Saramago is trying to express.

  9. 03/22/2010

    This is my favorite Saramago so far. (Actually, the only other one I’ve read is The Double, which I actually read first and also loved.) And yes, the scene in the church toward the end is a stunner, also the scene in the bath. All those small gestures and tender moments in the last part of the book were, to me, made all the more beautiful in contrast to the horror that happened earlier. I have the sequel, Seeing, out from the library now, but I’m not sure I’ll get to it before it’s due.

    As far as all the questions about the reasons for the blindness and the doctor’s wife’s immunity, I wondered about it but ultimately decided that that’s the way it was because that’s the way Saramago needed it to be. Like Jackie, I don’t think he’s interested in providing medical justifications for it. The same thing was true of The Double. There’s a doppelganger–we never know why. It’s just not a question Saramago cares about. He’s more interested in how a man might deal with the doppelganger–or mass blindness.

  10. 03/23/2010

    Saramago is one of my favorite authors. I’m glad you mentioned All the Names. I think Blindness gets too much love at the expense of his other works like The Stone Raft, Baltasar and Blimunda, The History of the Seige of Lisbon.

  11. 03/23/2010

    @ Rebecca: I think this would be a hard book for you because of some of the things that are depicted, but I’m glad you are willing to keep an open mind and give it a shot. I do wonder if another Saramago might be a better fit for you though! Perhaps start with All the Names! 😉
     
    @ Matt: I haven’t read Saramago all that much actually – this was only my second book of his! However, I’m really looking forward to reading more, as I do have a ton of his books around the apartment. Also, I can’t wait to get a copy of Death with Interruptions!
     
    @ Teresa: I have a copy of The Double, and the premise there is really intriguing as well, and I’m so looking forward to it! I agree that there are moments of quiet beauty in this novel that shine in contrast to the horror in the early parts of the novel, and I think those moments helped me feel the book was not just bleak and miserable.
    Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Seeing – provided you are able to get to it! 😉
     
    @ Kinna: Thanks for taking the time to comment! I would agree that Blindness is Saramago’s best known work, but as I said, I did like All the Names more. I haven’t read any of the other titles you mention, but I think I have all of them here at home so it is only a matter of time! 😀
     
    @ claire: Yes, there are certain authors where I think it’s a given that I’ll enjoy what they do, and Saramago is certainly on that list! Was History the first Saramago you read? I hope you find time to read some more of him soon, because I think you’ll have great insights!

  12. 03/23/2010

    Well, I kind of expected you’d love this! I do have the same feeling that I won’t love his other books as much as I did The History of The Siege of Lisbon. I have this one and of course All the Names on hand and so excited about both. 😀

  13. kay
    03/23/2010

    Great review Steph! I have had a French translation of the novel for a little over five years on my shelves, I have no idea why I haven’t picked it up yet! It sounds like you enjoyed it though, so I might try to give it a chance too.

  14. 03/23/2010

    Silly though this no doubt sounds, I feel guilty for not liking Saramago. This is one of the three of hour novels of his I’ve tried, but no luck. I just can’t get on with his style. Perhaps I’ll try again in the future, though, as with books it’s so often a matter of timing. I’m glad to hear you found it so rewarding!

  15. 03/24/2010

    @ kay: My advisor is from Quebec and loves Saramago, but has actually only read his books in French! She said that she loves the French translations, especially of Blindness, so I think you have a treat in store!
     
    @ Nymeth: I don’t think it’s silly for you not to like Saramago, because he really does have a very distinct style, and it clearly isn’t for everyone. I’m kind of surprised I like him as much as I do because generally stream of consciousness prose drives me mad but for whatever reason, we gel! I think if you’ve read three of his books then you’ve given him a fair shake.

  16. Quite the comprehensive review, Steph! Thanks. I fully intended to read Blindness last year and I didn’t; I really must rectify that this year. I loved The Road, I love bleakness and I am sure that I will love this. It’s just a matter of time until I read it…

    I really need to close myself off to any new books of any variety and settle down with those novels that I have been desperate to read for some time. I don’t understand what’s stopping me – the fear of being disappointed?

  17. 03/29/2010

    @ Claire: Given all your reading preferences, I do think you’ll like this book a good deal! It’s just your cup of tea!
    I think it’s easy to get complacent with authors we’ve already read, and even with the ones we love, there might be the fear, as you mention, that we won’t like any of their other books as much. But I’ve found that revisiting authors is rarely a disappointment, so I really need to do it more too!

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