Paperback, 326 pages.
Read from October 12 to November 23, 2014
This book is like a sharp slap to the face; it startles and shocks you into coming to terms with whatever problem you’re currently dealing with as I cannot imagine a more horrifying scenario for the human race and condition than the one described in this book.
An epidemic of “white blindness” hits a city. For no reason at all, people become blind and all they can see is a gleaming whiteness. The first to go blind is a man in his car, and then the man who helps him home right after stealing his car. After the first man goes blind he goes to see an optometrist and from there, shortly after his arrival everyone in the reception area along with the doctor also go blind. It is the doctor who notifies authorities of the epidemic but his decision to do so will mean suffering for himself and those who follow him into quarantine. The only person who does not go blind, is the doctor’s wife. She pretends to be blind so that she can accompany her husband and help him while he is quarantined.
The horrors of this rushed quarantined life for all these unnamed characters is challenging to read. The military refuses to get near the area and assist with anything for fear of catching the blindness and their fear quickly leads to death when the amount of food is not enough for the people quarantined. The blind have to find a way to bury their own dead with limited resources to prevent stench and disease. They are given no medical supplies and so some characters succumb to completely curable conditions. The lack of empathy and fear from the military is so hard to fathom. I kept waiting for one of the men to step up and do the right thing for these suffering people in so many scenarios but it never happened. Soon these blind people, who are barely able to make it to the bathroom because they are unable to find it, quickly mess up the bathroom with their bodily functions and when the bathrooms are unbearable they go wherever they can. The smell and filth of quarantined area emanated from the pages of the book. It read so real and their discomfort was unbearable at times. After a fire breaks out in quarantine, the blind group of people realize that the military men are all gone and that their quarantine was for nothing as the blindness has grasped the city. While the main group of blind people work together the selfishness and down right cruelty of people are also shown in this book with some disgusting acts of sexual assault and starvation. These nasty scenes are often balanced with those of human compassion and resilience thankfully and I can say the book ends happily.
While the blind can smell and feel their filth and suffering, none bear it more than the only remaining character with sight, the doctor’s wife. She bears witness to these adults and children who have lost all dignity while they struggle to survive in and out of quarantine. The doctor’s wife becomes the group’s unofficial leader and for the majority of the book the only person that knows she isn’t blind is her husband. There is never an explanation as to why the epidemic occurs or as to why the doctor’s wife was spared when none one else was.
The writing itself is literally like nothing else I’ve ever read before. Saramago does not ever use quotations marks or new paragraphs when a character or a new character starts speaking. Additionally, there isn’t one character that is given a name. This style, was surprisingly not difficult to follow and I was almost always able to tell which character was speaking. I believe the reasoning behind this style is to show a sense of unity in that everyone is suffering the same and going through the same thing and that in a world of blindness names seem useless anyway.
This book isn’t easy to stomach so it may not for everyone, especially if you’d prefer to escape reality with reading rather than come to its harsh realities. I just think it’s important to read books like this once and a while to shock and shake you up in order to serve as a reminder that we are often stronger than we know and that we should be grateful for the many things we take for granted.