BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago

In Portuguese, the title of Saramago’s book translates into something closer to “An Essay On Blindness,” as in, what would the effects on society be if everyone were to suddenly lose their sight? As you can imagine, pretty damn scary. I think one thing literature has taught us is that if something happens to everyone, everywhere, and at the same time, it’s going to be bad. You’d think everyone going blind would be the biggest s**tstorm of all time. Blindness doesn’t disappoint.

When people in a nameless country inexplicably lose their sight, the government is quick to throw them into quarantine. But as their numbers begin to grow and the fear of becoming infected spreads, things quickly spiral out of control. Locked in an abandoned mental hospital, a small group, led by a doctor and his wife – who can still see – must learn to navigate their way through a society that’s coming down around them.

Blindness was originally written in Portuguese, then published in English in 1997. For some reason, it always comes as a surprise that one language never translates exactly into another. Such is the case here, which leads to interesting results in the book’s prose. The not-quite-perfect English makes you feel as if the story is something you’re experiencing and not reading. The almost total lack of punctuation, the dialogue of one character flowing into that of another gives you the feeling that you’re the one who’s blind. I found the device clever here when I found it kind of annoying in other books (I’m looking at you No Country for Old Men).

As is often the case with books like these, there are plenty of “oh sh*t!” moments. You’ll find yourself putting the book down, imagining what life might be like if Julianne Moore were the only person in the world who could see. You’ll also be tempted to close your eyes and try performing the most rudimentary tasks – such as using the toilet – in the dark. Do not be fooled, the consequences are devastating and your wife will probably make me sleep on the couch for what I did to the carpet.

Saramago seems to be a keen student of human nature, and this is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. You empathize with and understand the characters, because you see yourself in them. You’ll have a hard time not putting yourself in their position, and wondering exactly how delicate society’s balance between order and chaos truly is.

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