- Translated by Giovanni Pontiero
- Published by Vintage
- First published in 2013
- 455 pages
When a man suddenly loses his vision, it causes an accident. But when this blindness spreads through the population, it threatens everything civilisation stands for. In this new world, what will become of those who cannot see the way forward . . ?
There’s a little story to why I read this book. One of the few online communities I am a part of is Media Death Cult, which has an active Discord server primarily dedicated to science fiction (though, as always, fantasy and horror muscle their way in too). Over the New Year, the server hosted a Secret Santa event, where everyone recommended a book to another member, and was in turn recommended a book. So while I suggested another member read Ben Bova’s Mars, it was suggested that I read Jose Saramago’s Blindness. As I said at the time, this is outside my usual wheelhouse. After all, dystopias and apocalyptic tales rarely thrill me. But fair is fair, and I picked it up, approaching with an open mind to see what this famous Portuguese writer came up with.
It turns out that some tropes transcend cultures, because there’s little in the narrative itself that is any different to what an English writer may come up with. Indeed, the setting is incredibly vague. There is a city. There is a government. There are people. But the city has no country. The government has no organisation. The people have no names. I’m sure this is an attempt to show how universal the human condition is, but it comes across as frustratingly bland. Everything and everyone is paper thin.
This is not helped by the plot itself. Think of a post-apocalyptic trope and you’ll probably find it here. The afflicted are put in hospitals that are more like prisons. The military turn against civilians. Women are sexually abused and treated as objects by all but our heroes. Naturally, our heroes also adopt a dog along the way. There is nothing new or innovative about any of it.
Except maybe in the writing. I can honestly say I’ve never read a book like this, though whether that is original authorship or translator, I am not qualified to say. What I can say, is that I hated it. Genuinely hated the writing. It’s not a readability issue, as the language used is actually quite readable. In spite of everything, it is a bit of a page turner. But that’s in spite of a lot. For some reason, Saramago decided not to use anything resembling a traditional sentence structure. Direct dialogue is separated from text only by a comma, and multiple speakers will be involved in a single sentence. An entire conversation might take place in a single paragraph. A paragraph that sprawls across multiple pages without any sign of a break.
Considering the acclaim this book has, I fail to see much to redeem it. If you want another trope-filled disaster story, you’ll find it here. And it can be weirdly compelling in a car-crash sort of way, but it’s still not a book I’d dash out and recommend.
Deeper Dive: What Are Award Juries After?
When Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Blindness was one of the cited works. Now, I could use this as an example of award bodies being out of touch with the common reader like myself, but I’m not going to. Instead I’m going to ask a related question. Just what do award ceremonies see in a book like this?
I think there is a fairly simple explanation for this. Take a look at the Nobels. Take a look at the Hugos. Or the Nebulas. Or any other awards. Rarely do they mention plot, characters, or worldbuilding when praising their chosen victor. Instead they focus on other traits, notably theme and prose.
When it comes to theme, there is certain evidence to suggest awards juries (and indeed voting publics) select books that back up their ideological beliefs. They are looking for books that ask deep questions, but come up with (to them) satisfying answers. Books that buck the trend seldom score well. For example, an actively pro-Imperialist book, however well-written, is unlikely to win a Hugo Award. For better as well as for worse, awards are gatekeepers that champion certain causes. This is, by design, their function. To uplift a type of book and say, ‘this is what a good book looks like.’ I should know, my Boundy Awards are no different.
As for prose, literary awards are more likely to champion experimentation than adherence to perceived rules. This is why Aldred Bester and Samuel R. Delany are so revered. They broke the pattern and came out on top. While I loathe the stylistic tendencies of Saramago, to the Nobel judges, his work is bold and experimental, unfettered by convention. And who’s to say, maybe they’re right. I’m no arbiter of objective goodness. I can only say what I do and don’t like. It’s up to everyone else to draw their own conclusions.
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