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Sightgeist

Blindness

by José Saramago, Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero
Harcourt Brace, 293 pp., $22.00

How many proverbs and clichés would have to change if everybody went blind? Could you say, “I know the place like the back of my hand,” if the back of your hand were something you never saw? Could one usefully speak of “the blind leading the blind,” if other options were no longer available? Such considerations, you might think, would hardly be of the highest priority in a world suddenly and terribly afflicted by an epidemic of blindness, yet of all the obstacles that José Saramago has his characters blunder against in the suddenly sightless world of his new novel, language is perhaps the most frequent and the most perplexing. “Just imagine,” remarks one girl, stumbling in the entrance to her old apartment block, “stairs that I used to go up and down with my eyes closed….” In radically changed conditions, the inertia of common usage constantly generates absurdities. Not only is the shin scraped in contact with cement, but the mind is humiliated as its mindless habits are exposed.

That standard visions of reality are enshrined in standard language is itself a commonplace. Saramago, along with a multitude of writers past and present, is eager to increase our sensitivity to the contingency of the one upon the other, and the contingency of identity on both. In most of Saramago’s novels, a major change occurs in the world: people go blind, or the Iberian peninsula detaches itself from the European mainland, or some key historical fact is reversed, or the central tenets of our religion are inverted. In dramatizing the aftermath of such changes, Saramago mercilessly satirizes those whose investment in the old status quo makes it impossible for them to adapt or even understand how obsolete their vision of the world has become.

In this respect, Saramago’s political sympathies as a Portuguese Communist come predictably to mind. The reaction of the government to the epidemic of blindness in the new novel suggests nothing more than the brutal clumsiness of Thirties fascism. On only the second day of the epidemic, sufferers are locked in a disused hospital without so much as a shovel to bury their dead. No radio, no medicine. Anyone venturing more than a few yards from the door is summarily shot. One frequently feels one is reading a book about the death camps.

In The Stone Raft, published in 1986, American and European capitalism become the obvious butt of ridicule as the Pyrenees split from east to west and Spain and Portugal drift away into the Atlantic. The rich desert their hotels for helicopters; the US president wonders if he will be able to include the ex-peninsula in an American sphere of influence, the European Community is glad to be rid of two of its poorer members, etc., etc.

In The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), when a humble proofreader radically alters Portuguese history by negating a verb in the book he is checking, the bewildered indignation of the publishers again suggests the inflexibility of a status quo that would gladly dispense with the unpredictability inherent in life itself, and that finds any manifestation of the will outside the conventional (here enshrined in the rules of proofreading) distasteful.

Fortunately satire is only one of Saramago’s many suits, for it is hardly his strongest. He lacks the accuracy in establishing his target that makes the ruthlessness of Cervantes, Swift, or, in modern times and different ways, Beckett not only acceptable, but admirable, even necessary. Faced with a recognition problem, the reader comes to suspect an excess of rancor in relation to the misdemeanor (so much so that locating the source of that rancor becomes one of the most intriguing challenges in reading Saramago’s work). Meanwhile, though, as the powers-that-be behave badly and in such a way as to keep the reader ever aware of the circumstantial nature of old certainties, others—notably the humble and the womenfolk—are adapting to change and all kinds of positive developments are occurring.

Saramago is not a simple writer, but such simplifications will perhaps allow us to get a grasp on what is a repeated structure in his novels. Thus the upheavals caused by the Iberian peninsula’s sudden vagrancy lead the protagonists of The Stone Raft to discover love of the most traditional and romantic variety, and the same is true for the proofreader hero of The Siege of Lisbon: his apparently perverse impulse in altering received history attracts the attention of an intelligent woman who, in encouraging him to reflect on what he has done and to write an imaginative history of the siege, allows him to discover a vein of creativity he never imagined he had. Again, the two fall in love and are splendidly happy in bed and out. More movingly and far more convincingly, the atrocious experiences of the central characters in Blindness lead them to a deep awareness of their now radical interdependence, generating a tenderness which is very beautifully portrayed in the closing pages of the novel.

Understanding the link between these negative and positive sides of Saramago’s work, the satire and the generous sentiment, may be the swiftest way to get a fix on a writer who will frequently seem professionally elusive, cheerfully, often wittily, stating everything and its opposite in a very short space, sometimes retelling an anecdote that he used in another book, but in such a way as entirely to invert the values it appeared to propose. Such an understanding may even help us to explain the relationship between his portrayal on the one hand of a realistic and immediately recognizable world and then his introduction of those provocatively unrealistic events that criticism has come to refer to as “magical.”

Saramago is on record as saying, “I cannot save anything but what I can do is write about what I think and feel and the anguish of seeing a world that could already have resolved a large portion of its humanitarian problems, but which not only has not solved any, but which, in fact, aggravates many of them.”1 Surprising here is the opening gesture. Did anybody expect or imagine that Saramago could “save anything”? “Nobody saves anybody,”2 Cioran reminds us in one of his caustic corrections of, as he puts it, “the obligatory optimism”3 of modern political thought. Clearly Saramago, like many genuine political idealists of whatever persuasion, suffers considerable disappointment at having observed over the years how the development of ever more sophisticated technical skills has not made it possible to resolve all “humanitarian” problems. (One presumes here that he is referring above all to the food supply and to disease and conflict, since the word “already” suggests a reference to progress in time, whereas it is difficult to imagine that our deeper existential problems will ever be susceptible to resolution.)

He gives us the impression, then, of a man reluctantly emerging from the peculiarly Western delirium that a perfection of technique at the service of good will might lead to the triumph of happiness. And like anybody who is disappointed, he tends to exaggerate. It is surely not true, for example, that we have “not solved any” of our humanitarian problems. All kinds of things have been achieved. On the other hand, who could disagree that the species has a perverse habit of generating problems where none need exist? And how confident can we feel of our powers of dealing with them if even our sense of self and identity, as Saramago insists, and with it our whole moral makeup, can easily be shown to be contingent on merest circumstance? “Do you love your husband?” one character asks another in Blindness. “Yes, as I love myself, but should I turn blind, if after turning blind I should no longer be the person I was, how would I then be able to go on loving him?” Though he never says as much, it is hard not to feel, as the bleak scenes of this book get bleaker and bleaker, that Saramago is approaching, albeit kicking and screaming, the position Thomas Bernhard’s hero reaches in Concrete when, suddenly weary of oppressive feelings of socialist guilt, he brusquely declares, “Poverty can’t be eradicated, and anyone who thinks of eradicating it is set on nothing short of the eradication of the human race itself, and hence of nature itself.”

Whose fault is this? In The Siege of Lisbon, Saramago remarks, with his realist and political satirist’s cap on, “It is always the same, we blame the gods for this and that, when it is we who invent and fabricate everything, including absolution for these and other crimes.” But elsewhere he offers us the despairing formulation: “God does not forgive the sins He makes us commit.” While the statements are contradictory, the world they refer us to is at once recognizable and grim: a place where men and women are locked into repeating cycles of crime and guilt. Often one feels that Saramago’s departures into the “magical,” which usually occur around those falling in love, indicate a yearning to remove the debate from the merely political arena, where hope has proved a cheat and satire become routine, but without as a result finding oneself trapped in a gloomily deterministic, perhaps theistic vision where there is nothing to be hoped at all. (In this respect it may be worth noting that most “magical realism” comes from writers of Communist or socialist persuasion, their political positions as predictable as their fictions are fantastic.) “The possibility of the impossible, dreams and illusions, are the subject of my novels,” says Saramago.4 The attentive reader will notice the sleight of hand by which the contradictory, indeed meaningless, first entry in that list optimistically shifts the status of the second two. Perhaps the word “love” would have done for all three, since again and again it is love and only love that redeems human experience as presented in Saramago’s world.

Let us take the example of the two novels of Saramago’s that are at once the strongest and also, since they make no reference to the Iberian experience, the most accessible to the reader with little specialist knowledge: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) and Blindness. As a retelling of the Bible story, the curiosity of The Gospel is that while setting out with intentions clearly hostile to established religion, Saramago does not merely debunk the supernatural by giving us a realist or psychological account of Christ’s life. Rather, he invents all kinds of supernatural occurrences that are not present in the Bible story as we have it. In rapid synthesis: At Jesus’ decidedly nonvirgin conception God mixed his seed with Joseph’s. There is thus some ambiguity about who actually fathered the boy. Jesus’ youth is drastically conditioned by the fact that his father, who had got wind of Herod’s planned slaughter of the innocents, saved his own baby but did not warn the other parents. His guilt over this terrible failing will lead him, Joseph, to pointless self-sacrifice and ultimately meaningless crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.

  1. 1

    Quoted by James Wood in The New Republic, November 30, 1998, p. 50.

  2. 2

    Cioran, The Fall into Time (Quadrangle, 1970), p. 57.

  3. 3

    Cioran, History and Utopia (Seaver, 1987), p. 96.

  4. 4

    Quoted by his translator Giovanni Pontiero in an afterword to The History of the Siege of Lisbon (Harcourt Brace, 1996).

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