Thoughts after Reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness
Reading tastes are as individual as food preferences. It is, after all, biology that governs individuality, so what is it in my DNA that makes some books resonate while even critically acclaimed others do not, why scenes from some novels read years ago are as fresh as if I had just read them and whole plots of others have disappeared. This question was prompted after reading Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness.
After hearing Myla Goldberg’s ardent endorsement on NPR’s You Must Read This, I made a mad dash to my to-read bookshelf—if Blindness wasn’t there I could search the library online (our amazing little library is a block away and open until 8pm weeknights, thank god for libraries). Yes! I had it! Squirreled away with a stack of other promising getaways.
Goldberg said she does not re-read books but read Blindness three times. Wow, I thought, I don’t know anyone who has read a book three times. I, too, do not re-read books, not even the ones that held me captive in other worlds in which I left little pieces of myself, like Magic Mountain, sitting bundled up in a deck chair in the sun and cold of the Swiss Alps where time had stopped and death and decay of both body and terrain were tied, trying to figure out if and why we really exist. Goldberg said just talking about Blindness made her want to read it yet again. I had read only one other Saramago, All the Names, which left only the impression, hmm, okay, interesting but not enjoyable, memorable only for its style. Maybe Blindness was The One.
So, I started reading Blindness. Slowly. Laboriously. It made me tired just to pick it up at night, to see what fresh hell those miserable characters would find themselves in next. This resistance may have been partly due to the fact that I have never cared much for dystopian fiction. I felt the same way about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I appreciate the message both McCarthy and Saramago are sending—wake up, you people, before it’s too late. At the end, in case the reader hasn’t gotten it, Saramago even spells it out. The doctor, upon recovering his sight, tells his wife, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.” But, for me, message alone is not enough.
About halfway, I started skimming, reading just enough to see that things were not getting better, were, in fact, getting progressively darker and more desperate. The characters are not dehumanized, just the opposite, the final violation they suffer is the stench of their own body odor. I didn’t find it disturbing; I wasn’t engaged enough to be disturbed. I was simply bored. Reduced to mind-numbing torpor.
I’m sure it was intentional on Saramago’s part to match the writing to actual blindness. Reading Blindness was like being blind, like trying to find a foothold in a narrative that is itself a maze, long sentences and paragraphs broken only by commas and occasional periods, run-on dialogues and no quotation marks. I didn’t have a problem with that; capital letters worked fine in signaling a new speaker. My main problem was that I couldn’t connect with the characters. I did not find them, as Goldberg said, “beautifully rendered”…well, yes, they did “represent a wide spectrum of human nature.” But they were featureless, flat, a wide spectrum of human nature, sure, but faceless droids. If I could hear them speak, I’m sure it would be in a monotone.
I concluded that my reading tastes are governed to a great extent by my learning style, and I wonder if this might be true for other people. My learning style is visual. Reading a good novel is like dreaming, like a movie playing inside my head. Blindness was like having sound but no picture. My favorite authors have acute descriptive powers—they place me in a scene so fully that I lose reality. When Newland Archer in Age of Innocence stands at land’s end looking out at the figure in the pagoda at the end of the pier, I can still see the bay at sunset, the back of Ellen Olenska as she leans on the railing, and the lighthouse past which the sailboat glides, marking the time he will give her to sense his presence and turn toward him, his sign that she cares for him. The charged emotion in the scene is realized by a convergence of his thoughts with the scenery in which they arise and evolve.
When I think of the opening chapter in Agee’s A Death in the Family, I can still see Rufus and his father walking home in darkness from the movie, crossing the viaduct and stopping to sit on a rock in a vacant, weedy lot overlooking the tracks of the Southern Railway, the mountains to the north and the stars through the leaves of the tree overhead. The deep, unspoken affection between father and son, the brevity and fragility of life on earth and the mystery and infinity of the universe are inextricably bound in that lovingly rendered scene.
After hearing Goldberg, I wish I had gotten a second opinion. I wish I had read this Saramago review in The New Republic by John Banville, a writer whose work I greatly admire. Banville said that if a writer is given signs it is “our duty to make the meaning of our signs as tangible as possible for those who come after us. Otherwise all we will have done is put impediments in the way of the blind. Vagueness may be fashionable, but clarity is timeless.” I have satisfied my curiosity about Saramago, at least his later work, and will happily return to books inspired by story, not style. Seeing, for me, is believing.