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.
When Jesus discovers all this he is himself deeply shocked and feels profoundly guilty for being alive at all. Saramago is extremely skillful, here and elsewhere, in the way he takes biblical events and twists and weaves them together in an entirely different way. But if this opening prepares the reader for a psychological explanation of Jesus’ fascination with guilt and sacrifice, it is immediately contradicted by the introduction of the figures of God and the devil, who are revealed as in cynical collusion in a plot to use Jesus to extend their mutually enhancing influences outside the limited area of Judea and ultimately over the whole world.
The powers given to Jesus must merely serve to convince the world that he is the Son of God in order that his sacrificial death can then create the illusion of a loving and caring divinity, who gave himself for others. Any benefits accruing to those healed or helped are entirely incidental. In the event, most of the miracles backfire rather drastically. In helping one group of fishermen rather than another, Jesus upsets the market for fish; in exorcising the man with many demons by sending them into the Gadarene swine who promptly jump over the cliff, he deprives a number of swineherds of their livelihood. And so on. In this grotesque comedy of evil and errors, whether on the political plane or the metaphysical, the only real miracle to emerge in the story is the love between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
The technique the book deploys is that of making us constantly uncertain what reality Saramago wishes to attribute to any character or event. While the debate revolves resourcefully but interminably around the old chestnut that if God exists he must be fallible or evil, the narrator never allows us to settle on a particular point of view, or reading of his text, or even vision of the characters. This can be stimulating and meshes perfectly with a voice that demands that the reader be constantly exercising discrimination at every level. The lack of paragraphing and absence of any punctuation aside from the comma and full stop (typical of all Saramago’s fiction) oblige one to work hard to keep track of who is speaking to whom, while at a higher level the narrator’s tendency to fall back on received ideas, or to engage in bizarre speculation, or wander off into the most inconsequential rambling, serves both to entertain and to keep us on our toes. These lines come from the period when Jesus is living with Mary Magdalene and the fishermen beside the Sea of Galilee:
How true, the saying which reminds us that there is so much sorrow in this world, misfortunes grow like weeds beneath our feet. Such a saying could only have been invented by mortals, accustomed as they are to life’s ups and downs, obstacles, setbacks, and constant struggle. The only people likely to question it are those who sail the seas, for they know that even greater woe lies beneath their feet, indeed, unfathomable chasms. The misfortunes of seafarers, the winds and gales sent from heaven, cause waves to swell, storms to break, sails to rip, and fragile vessels to founder. And these fishermen and sailors truly perish between heaven and earth, a heaven hands cannot reach, an earth feet never touch. The Sea of Galilee is nearly always tranquil and smooth, like any lake, until the watery furies are unleashed, and then it is every man for himself, although sadly some drown. But let us return to Jesus of Nazareth and his recent worries, which only goes to show that the human heart is never content, and that doing one’s duty does not bring peace of mind, though those who are easily satisfied would have us believe otherwise. One could say that thanks to the endless comings and goings of Jesus up and down the river Jordan, there is no longer any hardship, not even an occasional shortage, on the western shore.
What a genial little minefield of propositions this is: the naive quotation of the old saying “Misfortunes grow like weeds beneath our feet,” the bizarre reflection that such a saying could only have been invented by mortals, thus begging the question, by whom if not by mortals? Do we believe in immortal beings? Have we ever reflected on how inappropriate our proverbs would be for their happy state? There follows a complacent rehearsal of our difficult lives (“obstacles, setbacks, constant struggle”) then suddenly the mad decision to take “weeds beneath the feet” literally, which leads to the odd thought that there is a category, that of sailor folk, who might reasonably take issue with this saying. So now we get the leisurely account of what we already know very well, the precariousness of the fisherman’s life, but with the ominous suggestion that “gales are sent from heaven”—deliberately, by those immortal beings perhaps?—this culminating in the wonderful “fisherman and sailors truly perish,” as if there were any other way to perish, or as if perishing were the only truth, followed by the rhetorically savored and again otiose, but also confusing, “between heaven and earth, a heaven hands cannot reach, an earth feet never touch.” Strangely, we are reminded, there are indeed occasions when we refer to the sea as the earth.
This digression on the sailing life, or death, naturally returns the narrator to the Sea of Galilee, pronounced normally tranquil, “like any lake” (but those of us familiar with other climes will know of lakes that are rarely tranquil), yet occasionally, the narrator then remembers, dangerous, indeed vicious. And here we have the marvelous non sequitur “and then it is every man for himself, although sadly some drown,” where the word “sadly” in particular parades all its inadequacy. Then, out of nowhere, we have a direct address to the reader, “But let us return…,” followed by the depressing aside that doing one’s duty (but what is one’s duty?) doesn’t bring peace of mind, this now an attack on received ideas rather than their repetition, and finally the speculative “one could say” (but presumably one might well not) introducing an entirely economic appraisal of Jesus’ fishing miracles, the benefits of which, we notice are limited (sadly?) to the western shore….
All this is at once extremely astute and very good fun; the protean nature of the narrator forces the reader to work at establishing his own position, and the echoes of Beckett’s droll narrative voices, at once pedantic and perplexed, are clear and welcome. Unfortunately the project breaks down at those points in the book where Saramago is so sure of what he knows, and feels so strongly about it, that instead of leaving the reader this space for discrimination, he plunges us into the most crude and coercive of satires. Here is the long-delayed “annunciation” when, with Jesus now a grown man, an angel is finally sent to inform Mary of the details of his conception.
Know, Mary, that the Lord mixed His seed with that of Joseph on the morning you conceived for the first time, and it was the Lord’s seed rather than that of your husband, however legitimate, that sired your son Jesus. Much surprised, Mary asked the angel, So Jesus is my son and also the son of the Lord. Woman, what are you saying, show some respect for precedence, the way you should put it is the son of the Lord and also of me. Of the Lord and also of you. No, of the Lord and of you. You confuse me, just answer my question, is Jesus our son. You mean to say the Lord’s son, because you only served to bear the child. So the Lord didn’t choose me. Don’t be absurd, the Lord was merely passing, as anyone watching would have seen from the color of the sky, when His eye caught you and Joseph, a fine, healthy couple, and then, if you can still remember how God’s will was made manifest, He ordained that Jesus be born nine months later. Is there any proof that it was the Lord’s seed that sired my firstborn. Well, it’s a delicate matter, what you’re demanding is nothing less than a paternity test, which in these mixed unions, no matter how many analyses, tests, and genetic comparisons one carries out can never give conclusive results.
While one agrees that the Bible story is absurd (but then so do many Christians, starting with the Apostle Paul), it is difficult not to feel that Saramago is falling into the merest flippancy here, something hardly distinguishable from a Monty Python script or a new and only slightly more daring episode of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This occurs with every divine manifestation in the book, causing an unevenness that seriously mars the whole effect and leaves us with the disturbing impression that for all the ostentatious rhetoric of epistemological doubt, Saramago, unlike others who have reflected on the biblical absurd—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Lawrence, Beckett, to name but a few—feels entirely, even smugly, sure of himself.
The first achievement of Blindness is to be rid of all this, of all, or nearly all, those mannerisms of method that dog the earlier books and have didacticism and satire occasionally descending into empty verbosity or, worse still, facetiousness. From page one Blindness takes itself entirely seriously, and rightly so. A man sitting in his car at a traffic light goes blind. His blindness seems to pass from person to person, at a glance, as it were. Within a few days everybody in the city, which in this book is the world, is blind. Everybody, that is, but one woman, the wife of the optometrist who examined the first blind man. It is on her and the group who gather around her that the narrative focuses and it is through her eyes, for there are no others, that the drama is observed.
Curiously, the phenomenon of universal sightlessness quickly clarifies the question of how much we can expect of political intervention and how far human suffering is inevitable. While the optometrist repeatedly comments on the need “to organize,” it becomes clear, as the narrative catalogs the painstaking efforts needed to achieve even the simplest ends, that no amount of organization will ever be enough to guarantee the most basic requirements of food and hygiene. The human race can at last be forgiven for not solving all its humanitarian problems. Meanwhile, in a crisis, as The Gospel reminded us, “it’s every man for himself.”
So the book starts to chart that descent into anarchy and selfish bestiality that we have all read about and shuddered at elsewhere: the thefts, the rapes, the gang terror, the humiliation, the murder, and this in a world where every technical aid has failed, where every room and street is swamped in excrement and filth. A dignified sense of self, the prerequisite of moral behavior, we see, has very much to do with our being able to keep an eye on each other.
But what distinguishes Saramago’s story from other cataclysmic tales of human degradation is the quality of the drama and consequent reflections that build up around the one seeing character, wife of the optometrist. The account of how the dynamic of the marriage alters, how her personality grows as she assumes both political and moral authority, is at once psychologically convincing and rich with possible analogy. She becomes willy-nilly a mother and a god to her companions, husband included, and as such is faced with appalling choices: in particular her discovery that there comes a moment when it is a moral obligation to kill is daring and in narrative terms totally gripping. But finest of all is the way, despite the growing distance between the minds of the sighted and the blind, despite the horror and filth to which she is constantly exposed, this woman develops a growing physical tenderness toward the other members of the group, a sort of desperate respect for the human body, her own and others’, which she transmits to her companions by simple acts of practical love.
Toward the end of the book, when in the derelict city, without power, water, or food, the group has finally found an empty apartment to sleep in, the wife is woken in the middle of the night to the sound of rain. She rushes out onto the balcony: “Don’t let it stop, she murmured as she searched in the kitchen for soap and detergents, scrubbing brushes, anything that might be used to clean a little, at least a little, of this unbearable filth of the soul. Of the body, she said, as if to correct this metaphysical thought, then she added, It’s all the same.” She gets the two other women in the group to help her wash the clothes—“we are the only woman in the world with two eyes and six hands”—and then themselves.
…There are moreover three naked women out there, as naked as when they came into the world, they seem to be mad, they must be mad, people in their right mind do not start washing on a balcony exposed to the view of the neighbourhood…my God, how the rain is pouring down on them, how it trickles between their breasts, how it lingers and disappears into the darkness of the pubis, how it finally drenches and flows over the thighs, perhaps we have judged them wrongly, or perhaps we are unable to see this the most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city, a sheet of foam flows from the floor of the balcony, if only I could go with it, falling interminably, clean, purified, naked. Only God sees us, said the wife of the first blind man, who, despite disappointments and setbacks, clings to the belief that God is not blind, to which the doctor’s wife replies, Not even he, the sky is clouded over, Only I can see you. Am I ugly, asked the girl with the dark glasses, You are skinny and dirty, you will never be ugly, And I, asked the wife of the first blind man, You are dirty and skinny like her, not as pretty, but more than I, You are beautiful, said the girl with the dark glasses, How do you know, since you have never seen me, I have dreamt of you twice… I too see you as beautiful, and I never dreamt of you, said the wife of the first blind man, Which only goes to show that blindness is the good fortune of the ugly, You are not ugly, No, as a matter of fact I am not, but at my age, How old are you, asked the girl with the dark glasses, Getting on for fifty, Like my mother, And her, Her, what, Is she still beautiful, She was more beautiful once, that’s what happens to all of us, we were all more beautiful once, You were never more beautiful, said the wife of the first blind man.
More daring here than all the metaphysical high jinks of The Gospel is the disturbing notion, convincingly realized in dramatic terms here, that full humanity is achieved only through suffering, which thus becomes, and this idea is provocative and entirely alien to Western political idealism, in a way necessary. When shortly after these and other manifestations of tenderness, people begin, one by one, to see again, it is both a relief and not so. Do we really have to pass through every sort of horror before we can open our eyes?
February 18, 1999
Quoted by James Wood in The New Republic, November 30, 1998, p. 50. ↩
Cioran, The Fall into Time (Quadrangle, 1970), p. 57. ↩
Cioran, History and Utopia (Seaver, 1987), p. 96. ↩
Quoted by his translator Giovanni Pontiero in an afterword to The History of the Siege of Lisbon (Harcourt Brace, 1996). ↩