Book.Review: Blindness

blindnessI’m not sure how Nobel prizes are handed out. I believe it is based on an author’s body of work, not just on one book, but after reading Blindness, I’m unwilling to read any more of José Saramago’s books to find out if, in my opinion of course, he deserved the prize.

You can think what you want, that maybe I’m not intellectual enough to appreciate this book that “has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man’s worst appetites and weaknesses-and man’s ultimately exhilarating spirit.”*  To be very blunt, I thought this book, Blindness, was crap.

[Sorry, but crap is a funnily appropriate term considering Saramago’s obsession with shit.]

The books wasn’t compelling, and it could easily have been. The story was there, the storytelling was not.

I got past his “…long blocks of unbroken prose, lacking conventional markers like paragraph breaks and quotation marks…”**  I struggled with how the point of view was all over the place: third person, head-hopping, first person, and the much confusing we used when Saramago interjected himself into the novel to have a short conversation with the reader, just in case you, the reader, weren’t smart enough to get the point. Near the end, even the dog got a chance to share its point of view.

I don’t have problems with difficult books. I’ve read Faulkner’s Sound and Fury, for goodness sake. I actually love Faulkner, and have read most of his books. I’ve read Dostoyevsky and Eco, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I’ve read Borges and Marquez. And I’ve read quite a few of the other Nobel Laureates, and that’s why I don’t understand how this book could have gained the following it has. These other authors, their stories engaged me as a reader. Blindness did not.

What bothered me was two fold.

One, I didn’t care about the characters, not really. [I told myself I was going to finish this book whether I wanted to or not, because I felt it had to have some redeeming qualities. It didn’t.]  It wasn’t until I was about half-way through, when the doctor’s wife realized she had the scissors, that I actually got just a teensy bit interested in what might happen, but even that fell a flat, was too predictable.

The doctor’s wife would have been a great protagonist. The one person who can see in a city of blind people, how could that not be more engrossing than the “village chorus”**?

Did I mention that no one had names, that they were the first blind man and the doctor’s wife and the boy with the squint, etc? Maybe that was a way of being clever, of trying to show how blindness can de-humanize us, but it put distance between me and the characters. I didn’t connect with any of them, not even during the most horrific scenes.

And finally, regarding characters, it felt very obvious that this book was written by an old man. The women were two-dimensional, more so than the men. They were either whores or mothers or crazy, mostly whores. I really disliked his treatment of women, and not in the way you would imagine. The rape scenes and the surrounding text did not anger me because those scenes felt like possibly the only true to life scenes in the book. I just felt like I didn’t care about these women. They were all whores or crazy, and uninteresting whores and crazies at that.

Two, the book felt antiquated. I kept thinking it was written in and about the 1930-40s, until he would throw in a term like microwave or AIDS that made me stop and wonder too many things that kicked me out of the story.

Why were none of the women concerned about birth control or the spread of venereal diseases? With all the shit everywhere, why did none of the women get infections? [Old man writing?] Why did no one have a computer? And considering the problems the sighted doctor’s wife dealt with in the city, were there no flashlights with batteries? Really? In a city of blind people, you’d think flashlights wouldn’t be in high demand. Where were the malls? the REIs? Where were the religious fanatics? Surely someone in the hospital would have been shouting how this was all God’s will, that he was punishing sinners. Where were the drug addicts going through withdrawal? Why did no one in the hospital have cancer or diabetes or require special medicines? Did no one get a cold or have a headache?  Did no one bring a bag full of drugs, over the counter or not? Why, out of 200+  inmates, did only one person bring a gun?

Did the blindness intentionally take the good, the old, the boring people first?

I just couldn’t relate to these people or the problems they were having. The people in Saramago’s world were more concerned with filth, with how everything was covered in shit and piss, than with realities. Saramago must have had some psychological problem with cleanliness. I get it. It smelled really bad and felt really bad, conditions were unsanitary, but if you say it more than three times you’re beating the reader over the head with it and showing the world your own obsessions.

He needed to show us what real people deal with everyday, things that would have been exacerbated by blindness. Things besides their bathroom habits.

Maybe a lot of these things were in the book but I just didn’t care enough to remember. Maybe they were too subtle for me to notice, or maybe I’m not intelligent enough to get it. Or maybe they were covered over with shit.

I gave this book two-stars because I did finish it. I didn’t want to, but I did.

 * Blindness (Amazon)

** José Saramago, Nobel Prize-Winning Portuguese Writer, Dies at 87


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