Friday, October 28, 2005

Saramago's Blindness: magic realism that snaps

I wrote recently about reading Haruki Murakami's short stories, which I liken to an enormous rubber band, stretching around the reader. Murakami draws us into some completely unremarkable life: a man wakes up, has some coffee and toast, reads the newspaper - then something happens to start stretching that rubber band. An elephant has vanished - or a little green monster has appeared - or an inexorable hunger is felt which will not be fulfilled by any amount of butter cookies and beer. The stretch at first seems to operate between everyday reality and the author's imagination, and we wonder how long he can maintain this exquisite tension. Somehow though he not only maintains it, but convinces us that the real tension is between our limited view of reality and the unimaginable mysteries of the world that surrounds us. When the rubber band finally snaps, its twang resounds against our own comfortable false notions.

A similarly magical elasticity, stretched to almost unbearable proportions, propels José Saramago's novel Blindness. The premise is an incurable epidemic of blindness, beginning with one man alone at a stoplight and then quickly spreading to everyone it contacts. The one exception is "the doctor's wife," whose preserved vision serves the reader and a small group of blind prisoners, trying to avoid the savagery developing around them. It is a stunningly bleak and horrific view of human nature.

As a reader I tried in vain to reduce Blindness to an allegory, only to find its implications ever wider and more tensely poised to snap. We'd like to dismiss the story as an impossible invention, yet we need only look to modern history to see how quickly a shelter or quarantine can become a concentration camp. All the reviews I have read seem to struggle with the book's refusal to yield to any convenient interpretation - we wait for some simple, clear symbolic meanings, like those hungry blind prisoners in the mental asylum waiting for their food rations, and we are denied them.

Saramago uses Blindness as a prism to show all the filth, the horror, and the inhumanity lurking beneath civilization, and yet ultimately the novel seems redemptive and hopeful to me. Having just muddled through one minor natural disaster, and watched a much larger one destroy a city, my urge is to read it as a prescient account of the collapse of human society. And yet, the novel reminds its reader that we are subject to all sorts of blindness, of which perhaps the worst is a blindness to the suffering of others. So for me the snap of Blindness is a call to a compassion that might overcome one's own short-sightedness.

I last wrote about Saramago and his more recent novel The Double in a post titled souls and clowns.

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