”The advantage enjoyed by these blind men was what might be called the illusion of light. In fact, it made no difference to them whether it was day or night, the first light of dawn or the evening twilight, the silent hours of early morning or the bustling din of noon, these blind people were for ever surrounded by a resplendent whiteness, like the sun shining through mist. For the latter, blindness did not mean being plunged into banal darkness, but living inside a luminous halo.”
We have all experienced blindness. Not that long ago I woke up in the middle of the night. There was no reassuring red glow of the digital clock by my bed nor the diffused yellow light from the streetlight making slat patterns across my floor . The dark was ink vat black, not gray or any other color on the spectrum, dark soul black.
My eyes ached from holding them open so wide trying to capture any stray light that could reassure me that the wonderful array of cones and rods in my eyes were still functioning. Any creak or thump took on so much more significance giving my active imagination ample incentive to flash an array of possible horrible scenarios. My heart rate climbs. I wondered if I’ve went blind. I think about the room full of books that will have no more significance to me than a pile of bricks or cement blocks, something I held reverence for that is now less than useless. I lay there in various stages of disbelief and reassurances until a sliver of light announced the dawn and my eyes, my beautiful eyes, luxuriated in those first rays of a new day. I could see.
The influenza epidemic of 1918 was one of the most terrifying events to happen to humanity in the 20th century even eclipsing two horrific world wars. 50 million people worldwide died suffocating from fluid filled lungs. Doctors were baffled, unable to find a cure or slow down the symptoms to allow the human immune system to have a chance. The disease had no compassion or any sense of a person’s economic situation, rich, poor, young and old all died. The average life expectancy in the United States dropped by twelve years.
And then it just disappeared. As if a magic number of dead had been reached. Can you imagine the fear that any flu symptoms must have inspired in people for years after the event? The Blind Eyes Looked Fine.
This book is about such an epidemic. An epidemic that spares no one. It begins with a man going blind while sitting in his car at a traffic light. He is brought to an opthamologist and his trip to see the doctor spreads this contagion at the speed of a prairie fire. The opthamologist is in the midst of researching this baffling disease when he goes blind as well. The government on the verge of panic rounds up all those infected in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease. The wife of the eye doctor packs his suitcase and even though she can still see packs her own clothes as well. When the government people come to get him she goes with him. They are taken to a vacant mental hospital. At first there are only a handful of people and then there are hundreds of people crammed into this facility. Soldiers are left to guard them and feed them. As more soldiers go blind fears become reality and in one such moment of desperation the soldiers fire into the crowd of blind people. The soldiers retreat and the blind are left with dead bodies to bury and spilled food to collect. ”Their hunger, however, had the strength only to take them three steps forward, reason intervened and warned them that for anybody imprudent enough to advance there was danger lurking in those lifeless bodies, above all, in that blood, who could tell what vapors, what emanations, what poisonous miasmas might not already be oozing forth from the open wounds of the corpses. They’re dead, they can’t do any harm, someone remarked, the intention was to reassure himself and others, but his words made matters worse, it was true that these blind internees were dead, that they could not move, see, could neither stir nor breath, but who can say that this white blindness is not some spiritual malaise, and if we assume this to be the case then the spirits of those blind casualties have never been as free as they are now, released from their bodies, and therefore free to do whatever they like, above all, to do evil, which as everyone knows, has always been the easiest thing to do.”
Any supernatural element, spirits or otherwise take a backseat to living breathing humans when it comes to perpetrating evil. A gang of men, empowered by a gun wielding leader, take control of the food. All of the internees are asked to bring all their valuables to be assessed and traded for food and water. I had to almost laugh at this point because these thugs are trapped in pre-blindness thinking. What value will jewelry or paper money have with people that can’t see? A good belt or a pair of shoes or a glass of water or a sandwich are the only things of any real value anymore. Well there is one other thing that will continue to have value. Women.
The inmates have been split into groups by rooms. After the valuables have been exhausted as a bartering tool for food and water the thugs tell the groups that if they want to eat they need to send their women to them. Hunger is all consuming. When you are hungry you can not think about anything else other than finding food. Your body, as part of our survival instinct, makes you very uncomfortable. We can all say what we would be capable of doing and not capable of doing when we are sitting in a bar casually munching on free peanuts and pretzels between pints of beer. The fact of the matter is most of us have never felt real hunger. We have had moments where our stomachs rumble or experienced a headache due to a missed meal, but true hunger, not eating for days hunger we can only speculate about what that is like.
One man in the group sounding like some of the Republican candidates in this last election said:”What did it matter if the women had to go there twice a month to give theses men what nature gave them to give.”
I think even the women had no idea what it really would mean to be raped. They have all had sex, no blushing virgins among them. They were hungry too and after some speculation decide that they need to do this not only to feed themselves, but also their men. It is way beyond anything they could even imagine. It was horrible and Jose Saramago pulls no punches. Being raped by one man is bad enough, but when being raped by several men a woman has become an object, not even an object of desire, but merely a receptacle for lust. Being attractive, or smart or any of the things that made men desire her, in the world before blindness, are suddenly immaterial. She is faceless, a base unit to be used and abused devoid of the uniqueness that identify all of us beyond being just a male or a female.
As the world goes blind the wife of the doctor is left unaffected. She continues to help where she can, but is reluctant to let everyone know she can see. She would be a slave to the group if they ever found out she could still see. She breaks out with a group of people all identified by their past professions or by some other identifying marker. We never do learn any of their names as if their identities have escaped them with their loss of vision.
There is a sweet scene when the doctor and his wife first arrive back at their home. ”The doctor put his hand into the inside pocket of his new jacket and brought out the keys. He held them in mid-air, waiting, his wife gently guided his hand towards the keyhole.”
The world is in chaos as blind people stumble everywhere looking for food and shelter. It is truly a horrific vision of a world disintegrating and brings home to me just how vulnerable we all are to a pandemic event or the loss of the electrical grid or for those with more fanciful terrors a zombie apocalypse. Will you kill someone to live?Jose Saramago
Jose Saramago by keeping the wife of the doctor immune to the disease gives himself a conduit to describe events. Without her the novel would have been difficult to write and would have been more difficult for us to read. We need vision and if we don’t have it ourselves we certainly need someone to provide it for us. There are lots of great themes in the novel, exploring the human condition and how we fail ourselves; and yet, eventually overcome the most severe circumstances. The text is a block of words with few paragraph breaks or markers to help us keep track of who is talking. This certainly adds to the difficulty of reading the novel, but I must counsel you to persevere. You will come away from the novel knowing you have experienced something, a grand vision of the disintegration of civilization and certainly you will reevaluate what is most important in your life. This is a novel that does what a great novel is supposed to do; it reveals what we keep hidden from ourselves.