I wish I could say something profound about this book, but what? The shift in tone and seriousness in Blindness from Saramago’s earlier The Double caught me by surprise. Here we have the same mannerisms — the long sentences, compressed dialogue, authorial asides. Whereas, in The Double, these techniques subtly undermine the credibility of the book, here Saramago’s style delivers a chilling fantasy of a world gone blind.
The blindness is sudden and complete and apparently transmitted like a disease through the slightest contacts. This is not a dark blindness, but a dazzling whiteness behind which everything vanishes. In a winter drive in the mountains, I drove once into a whiteout of snow. It was sudden and complete: I was in the car and it was moving, the tires vibrating on the road below us, but the outside world disappeared with no front or back or sides or horizon. It was terrifying and, thank God, it was brief.
When the blindness begins to spread, the government quarantines the afflicted in a vain attempt to contain the epidemic. Saramago gives us two situations of social breakdown. First, within the asylum and unprotected from the worst elements, those who go blind early are brutally victimized. When quarantine is no longer possible, the blind stumble out into a city where people roam the streets looking for food and stray dogs eat the corpses. We read on, not in hope that the blindness will abate, but because Saramago involves us in the lives of a few carefully-defined characters. They are characters without names, only definitions and those mostly related to sight: “the first blind man,” “the girl with dark glasses,” “the boy with a squint.” Initially this distances us from them. We resist knowing them, just as they resist going blind, but their struggles draw us in, until we can no more resist caring about them than they can resist acknowledging their loss.
The most enigmatic character is the doctor’s wife, the one person who keeps her sight and uses it to help preserve as many other as she can. When the quarantined blind break out of the asylum, they ask the doctor’s wife what she sees.
What’s the world like these days, the old man with the black eyepatch had asked, and the doctor’s wife replied, There’s no difference between inside and outside, between here and there, between the many and the few, between what we’re living through and what we shall have to live through, And the people, how are they coping, asked the girl with dark glasses, They go around like ghosts, this must be what it means to be a ghost, being certain that life exists, because your four senses say so, and yet unable to see it….
All the characters in The Double have names, tediously long and elaborate names: Tertuliano Afonso and Maria da Paz and even the dog, who has a Latin name. Yet I never came as close to those people who had names and apartments and jobs and cars and clothes and all the other appurtenances of life as I did to these shabby, filthy, hungry blind characters stumbling through each day.