Do you like bleak dystopian novels full of bad things happening to humanity in general and certain characters (usually women) in particular? Is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road your jam? Then this book might be right up your alley.
Set in the present day, we watch as characters named only by descriptors (the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, etc.) are struck down by epidemic of ‘white blindness’. We start with patient zero, a man who suddenly and unexpectedly goes blind while stopped in his car at a red light and is helped home by ‘good Samaritan’ who is not so good after all (he steals the newly blind man’s car). Patient zero attends at an optometrist clinic, and although the doctor cannot find anything wrong with the man’s eyes, we are witnessing the next patients- the doctor, as well as those unlucky enough to be in the surgery at the same time as patient zero will also soon be struck blind. Within days of the epidemic’s start, the government quarantines the blind and those exposed to the blind in an abandoned mental health facility, where things quickly descend into chaos. Included among the blind in their quarantine, and witnessing their moral and physical descent, is the doctor’s wife. She still has her vision but lied about it in order to accompany and assist her husband. She is the moral centre in this bleak morality tale and provides us with the details that allow us to envision their plight. Eventually the epidemic spreads beyond the quarantine and the whole city comes to a standstill. The inmates, hungry, forgotten and no longer forcibly quarantined, follow the doctor’s wife into the wider chaos of a society in ruin, in search of food and their loved ones.
Saramago’s novel was published in 1995, and while I can appreciate what he is trying to explore (ie: who are humans really, when social conventions no longer hold us in place), I did not like it one bit. My first issue was that I had trouble accepting one of Saramago’s main premises, namely the forced quarantining of a group of newly blind people in an abandoned institution without any assistance beyond poking food canisters over a fence. Not only do we not do this for Ebola, which is equally contagious and more deadly (the blindness in this novel is contagious but not deadly in and of itself), but we also have blind people in our general society- surely the first step would have been to hire a number of the already blind to provide care and assistance in the quarantine, and also in a transition to blind being the new normal?
My second issue was the Saramago’s descriptions of graphic sexual violence against women. I don’t care if he is trying to opine on ‘larger themes’- I just can’t, and I won’t. Male writers, find a different metaphor, this one is no longer acceptable.
This novel won the Nobel Prize for Literature and although I can see (pun intended) some merit in some of Saramago’s ideas, I certainly wouldn’t have voted for it (nor will I be re-reading it).
CBR11 Bingo- Award Winner