When one man suddenly goes blind, no one can quite explain what happened. When it spreads to the ophthalmologist who examined him, and then to other people they both were in contact with, it becomes clear that it is a highly infectious disease. As there is neither an explanation nor any treatment available, the afflicted are locked into an abandoned mental hospital where they mostly have to fend for themselves.
There are many books in which the breakdown of civilization in difficult circumstances is examined, but this is probably one of the most intriguing. While it is unflinching in its depiction of the degradation of everything that defines us as a civilized species, or at least what we think defines us as such, it manages to find humanity amid the chaos, the indignity, and the gloom, because solidarity, compassion, and companionship are also integral parts of our existence. It is truly a feat that Saramago accomplishes when he instills in his readers optimism about humankind while detailing all its faults with the highest level of realism. He even manages to inject some humour into the proceedings, although it is rooted in the absurdity and horror of the situation, and therefore leads not only to laughter but also to unease at being amused.
Another highlight is the style Saramago employs. There are long sentences and paragraphs in which dialogues are embedded in run-on sentences without quotation marks, but this unusual style never becomes confusing; instead it only mirrors the chaos of the situation. In the same vein, the characters have no names, they are called ‘the doctor’, ‘the girl with the dark glasses’, or ‘the boy with the squint’, but they still manage to be relatable. Especially the protagonist, ‘the doctor’s wife’, is a wonderful and strong character that is easy to root for. On top of that, Saramago’s language is so descriptive that he easily paints the most compelling mental images in a reader’s mind.
It loses some steam in its last quarter but still remains quite a page-turner. The only thing that I did not like was the ending, and it has nothing to do with what actually happens; that is nearly perfect. The problem is the how. There is a very fine line the book is straddling throughout, and that is its existence as a highly allegorical tale with stock characters and a pronounced message, and that of the more accessible and distinctive story of a group of likeable individuals that try to survive in a hostile environment. The book manages to never veer too far into any of these two directions, only to miss the mark right at the end when it leans too far into its allegorical side and all subtlety is lost.
The ending is still good but a little disappointing compared to the rest. Still, it is a great book with a unique idea that is almost perfectly executed, and a style that takes some getting used to but is ultimately rewarding because of the immersion it provides.