Project Reread, Book #1: Blindness, wrap-up

by david

OK, so I got some of that right.

It turns out that Blindness was in some ways a lousy book to start this project with. 1) It’s so idiosyncratic a book that it’s hard to forget some of the key elements. 2) Having read a ton of Saramago, I was able to sort of map his usual tricks against the stuff I definitely knew and anticipate a lot, and 3) having reread it now, I remember why I like the book a lot, but don’t consider it one of his best (I prefer All the Names and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ).

Nonetheless, down to business: reading this book as a minimally-participating member of a reading group was an interesting experience. I’ve never done a book club, and I’m not sure what’s expected of a participant in such a thing, but I’m sure I fell short. I was struck by the others’ sense that Saramago was heavy-handed with his themes and metaphors.I felt this was intentional: the narrative voice is self-critical and doddering, omniscient but then frankly admitting ignorance and creative license. The narrator seems to introduce himself as a character late in the novel, but without saying so explicitly, referring to himself in the third person, but muting his typical excess such that the section reads much more conventionally than elsewhere in the novel. For pages, it is only dialogue: he reveals himself to be a bad liar, overcompensating for a silence with nervous hurry, too much speech.

At his leisure he is a narrator who speaks in aphorisms, and largely in aphorisms he seems to be making up. Perhaps these are all Portuguese sayings: I do not know. But aphorisms have a way of travelling, or being translated, at least conceptually, to show up in other cultures, but much of what he posits as common wisdom is alien to me, the Portuguese equivalent of what some friends and I used to refer to as “Bumpkinisms.” His philosophizing and over-justifying may drive some readers mad, but to me they suggest a narrator unable to shed his humanity, using the tricks of language and culture to try and humanize the animal that emerges when civilization collapses. He even has a sense of humor at times. He writes of a colonel who advocated shooting all of the blind. The colonel then shot himself to death upon going blind. The narrator writes, “Now that’s what I call a consistent attitude, The army is always ready to set an example.”

Saramago’s least interesting books are the baldly political ones. I don’t read Blindness as overly political. Certainly it launches missiles at politicians and political cowardice, but it isn’t (to my admittedly ill-tuned receiver) broadcasting a political anthem.

I do take issue with it in places. Notably, late in the novel, when everybody in the city has become blind, and people are living like animals, the characters suggest that the blind of eye are also blind of feelings, that in normal times, the blind only feel through the feelings of others, that only by proxy are they able to maintain human status. Taken literally, this is obviously foolish, but I read it as clumsy even allegorically. It isn’t the ugliness of the sentiment that bothers me: he’s right to suggest that those “blind” to X will treat X as if it has no value, or as if its value is in an unconvertible coin. What bugs me is his scaling up from the animal society in the case of the blind-as-exceptions, but revealing the leader power of the sighted through a stripping away of others’ capabilities. Where can culture come from if the blind need a proxy to be human? By this rationale, only from someone superior, never by clawing forward collaboratively. Is this really all that’s behind this? Some Hobbesian view of things? It’s so at odds with what constitutes the humane elsewhere in this book and throughout Saramago’s work. The conversation reads like a working draft, just sticks out so awkwardly, serving neither the narrator nor the art. It seems a deadend allegorical alley, one that he didn’t finish surveying. But perhaps that’s the risk of a philosophizing windbag as a narrator: you can’t have him be right, or even sensible, too often.

I’m sure I didn’t think about this when I read Blindness a decade or so ago. I’m not sure what I did think about. I suppose I read it for the style, primarily. As a challenge. On rereading, it wasn’t a challenge at all. It only takes a few pages to get reading it swiftly, picking up his cadences and adapting to his excesses. Far more difficult novels await.

So this wasn’t an ideal starting place, but it was interesting: I definitely read it in a way that I couldn’t have before.