Jose Saramago, Blindness (Harcourt Brace, 1995)
[originally posted 3Dec2002]
Over the years since its publication, Blindness has been hailed as a modern classic and made more ten-best lists than anyone not a CPA is going to be willing to count. And I guess I can understand why, but I was far less impressed with the book than most.
To be fair, that’s probably because I’m more of a stickler for grammar. It’s obvious that Saramago has a distinctive style in his writing, and one that caused people to latch onto this book in amazing numbers. But a big part of that style is run-on sentences, some of which last a whole paragraph (and some paragraphs in this book last more than a page). It’s maddening. I also couldn’t help comparing the style of writing, and always unfavorably, to that of Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy also has a distinctive style about his prose, and it’s as clipped and rhythmic as Saramago’s is lengthy and free-flowing. Which a reader will prefer is likely a matter of taste; I fall on the clipped and rhythmic side of the fence.
The story is a political allegory about an unspecified modern city where the residents (at least, the ones we see throughout) have been struck blind. (One wonders if Saramago is aware of Joe Frank’s 1991 radio play Rent a Family, in which Arthur Miller spins such a scenario during a monologue.) Saramago weaves with a deft hand, and the messages under the surface never get to the point of hitting the reader over the head with a hammer. This is a refreshing change from most political fiction, even if, in order to do so, Saramago spends what seems an inordinate amount of tie avoiding the political by immersing his characters in the scatological. (There is more talk of human excrement in this book than in, perhaps, anything written in the twentieth century outside medical journals and certain sexual fetish novels.) Again, this is a personal thing, but I found myself quailing at the turn of every page, wondering how many of the words would have been better printed in brown.
So many conflicts about this novel, and all of them of a personal nature. I have no choice but to give it a straight middle-of-the-road ** ½ and come back to it at a later time. There is much here to be explored, but I didn’t see it as the be-all and end-all of Portugese literature that some have heralded it.