I haven’t made much of an effort to seek out Nobel Prize winners—my (probably incorrect) impression is that they tend toward Ultra-Serious, Humorless Social Novels about topics such as The Continuing Injustices of Post-Colonialism and The Tragedies of the Poor. I blame this on unfortunate early exposure to plodders like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown, as well as the fact that Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t have one and probably never will.
But José Saramago’s Blindness (alongside Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera) may force me to reevaluate. It starts from a simple premise—an epidemic of “white blindness” spreading through a city—and follows what happens next to its logical conclusions, with the majority of the book taking place in an abandoned mental asylum where the government sets up a quarantine for the afflicted blind, a place that quickly devolves into a hellish prison ruled by a pack of blind thugs.
You won’t find the deep insights into individual characters of a García Márquez—no one in Blindness even has the distinction of a name, and the people are often little more than sketches passing through the decimated, chaotic city. (“Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters,” a character says at one point.) He differentiates them by role and description—the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the first blind man, the girl with the dark glasses—and in his dialogue eschews quotation marks, paragraph breaks, and even most punctuation other than commas, lending a surreal sheen to the narrative. The technique is superbly handled, and seemed particularly well suited for this book, dissolving as it does the barriers between direct description and the increasingly auditory world of the blind, although it turns out that’s just how Saramago likes his dialogue in general.
But the power of the book is in the almost tactile realness of its world, in the demented and irresistible logic of its failing society, and in its relentless, unblinking exploration of human nature, both bad and good—people’s selfishness, opportunism, and indifference, but also their capacity for empathy and endless perseverance. A writer hasn’t grabbed me this hard since Haruki Murakami with After the Quake and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I even bought another of Saramago’s books, The Stone Raft, when I was little more than halfway through this one. Whether it’ll be as good as Blindness, I can’t say, but I’m guessing it’ll be pretty good. (After all, he did win a Nobel Prize.)
Sunday, March 04, 2007