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…
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