Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Guest Blogger: Steve H.

Steve leads two book discussions here at Mentor, the Men's book discussion group (free food!) and the 20-something book group (also free food I think!). Check our calendar for times and places.

Blindness by Jose Saramago
This is a book with a rather interesting premise. The people of an unnamed city begin inexplicably to go blind with a “white blindness.” The city officials attempt to quarantine those infected but the sickness spreads to all and the people are left without a government and on their own. The story centers around a particular cast of characters stricken with the blindness who are quarantined in an old asylum. There is one woman in this group who, for unknown reasons, can see and never loses her sight throughout the ordeal. In the asylum a group of blind thugs hoard the food and successfully make demands for the women, who give themselves over for the thugs’ enjoyment so everyone may be given food. At times a bleak and tough read to get through, it really relayed the many things we take for granted, and the choices we make in our interactions with others. It has shades of Lords of the Flies, but there is much more too. And the novel does have flaws, like the blindness is never explained, and in the end the blind suddenly have their vision back, yet the woman who never lost her vision goes blind with the sickness.
But the author was very successful in portraying how blindness, rather than some other incapacitating element on the human race, could destroy life as we know it. One of the most popular ends to the human race in fiction is nuclear war or a deadly disease that actually kills each individual. Blindness alone kills no one, but blindness for the human race, all at once, would be horrific. The novel enabled me to realize how vital our sight is and if no one had sight, what a different world it would be. Without sight, there is no one to run electric plants and water treatment plants, or food factories, or grow crops or a whole host of activities that we take for granted. In fact, even basic shelter would be almost impossible to create, for how can you choose a clearing in the land, find tools and supplies, and put them all together. Think about tasks like hammering a nail. We usually think of blindness as a disease that affects a small percentage of the population, and those with sight are able to guide those without, and create aids for them, so they may learn and then be self sufficient. But if just that one sense were taken from everyone it would be devastating. Of the five senses, a loss of any other one would allow the human race to still go on relatively unaltered. Think about losing our sense of touch, taste, smell or hearing; granted you might have some burned fingers, or initial difficulty in communicating, but humanity could adapt rather easily. If humanity as a whole loses its sight, there is no defense against predators, fires can’t be put out, hygiene becomes impossible and infection spreads, and food cannot be found and people starve to death.
Another aspect of the story that brings the reader to profound revelations is the character of the woman who can see. Although at first this may seem like an incredible gift she has, to the good person it is a heavy burden. And not to sound like a preacher, but to the decent person there is a deep sense of duty to use this gift to help others. On the other hand, she realizes that if she is to let everyone know her secret, she will quite literally be worked to death, as she simply can’t help everyone at once. So she finds a middle ground and helps her group as best as she can. Although this sounds sensible, she has to fight her conscience to agree to this limited solution. Also, there is the element of loneliness for the woman, in that she is the only one who can see how truly sad the situation is, and witnesses the fall of humanity, as the others lie in their own filth, while starving to death, migrating like animals searching for food. Although it may sound a bit preachy, it seems that Saramago was using the story as an allegory on how we live and what we decide to do with our lives, or how we decide to have impacts on others, for better or worse.
From an enjoyment standpoint, I would not really recommend this novel. And from a literary critique I would not say this is a great story in the traditional sense. A major flaw is that it unrealistically portrays the characters as too willing to give in to wretched demands of the thugs, with little initial resistance. The end is a cop out, in that it never explains the cause or dissipation of the blindness. Also, the author uses an unnamed city and all unnamed characters, which makes it hard to follow, and leaves out any storyline with a world picture. Questions that were never explored but could have been fascinating include aspects of how one nation faired in dealing with the blindness, say for example the Europeans vs. the United States, and did countries work together or work to destroy one another. What about top leadership, did they not use their secret bunkers, filled with stores of food. And the translation of the original text was dreadful, with no quotation marks, and commas and periods interchanged. The tenses change too, which is apparently a signature of Saramago. But I will say that judging this on a scale of originality, uniqueness and ability to engage the reader in thought, it was excellent.

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