‘Ensaio sobre a Cegueira’ (‘Blindness’) by José Saramago

My rating: 4 stars

Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, Blindness in the English translation, is an allegorical novel by the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago. It tells a tale about how people can become irrational when dealing with extreme situations, and how it’s thanks to those who continue to promote the need for some order that it’s possible to carry on living in community for a while. Throughout the novel, we are faced with the worst and best of humanity.

The story starts when a man, who is waiting inside his car for a traffic light to turn green, goes blind. But he doesn’t become surrounded by darkness, instead everything around him turns white, as if the world had become illuminated. A stranger takes him home, where his wife finds him sat near a broken jar. When the man explains to her that he is blind, she takes him to an ophthalmologist. She has to call a taxi, though, because the man who helped her husband took the opportunity to steal the car.

However, after taking the car, that man gets remorseful. Worried and afraid of being caught by the police, he can’t continue driving and stops the car. This is when he also starts seeing everything white. He is blind too.

The ophthalmologist who sees the first blind man can’t find anything physically wrong with him and doesn’t understand how he went blind. He doesn’t give up on the case, nonetheless, and carries on thinking about this white blindness when he gets home. To try to understand it, he studies various books. But, when he decides that it’s time to get some sleep and is putting the books back on the shelves, he also goes blind.

The following morning the ophthalmologist realises that he shouldn’t have slept near his wife, since the blindness is probably contagious. Although he then tries to persuade her not to get too close to him, she refuses to leave his side even when the Ministry of Health sends an ambulance to pick him up. She packs a bag and goes with him, pretending to also be blind.

The Ministry of Health has decided to gather all the infected at a former lunatic asylum. At first there are only six people there: the first man who went blind, the one who stole his car, the ophthalmologist and his wife, a child with strabismus, and a young woman who has conjunctivitis. There is no one at the asylum responsible for their healthcare. They are abandoned there, and soon many more people join them.

Throughout the book, we are presented with many relevant social, moral and political considerations, making us think about how we live in society and how we judge people. The way in which the blind start living reveal that fear leads to inhumane actions, that there are those who take every opportunity to exploit others, and that women end up being the major victims. Not being seen helps people to act in ways that were unthinkable before the blindness infection.

In some instances, the adjectives used to characterise the surroundings and the time of the day have a double meaning, denoting also the personal situation of the blind people. The despair is particularly well represented, but some hilarious moments are also depicted, making me smile despite all the gloom and doom.

The novel feels like a warning against those who think that ignorance is bliss. The blind did not start to live in the pitch-dark but surrounded by a luminous white. They couldn’t see, but weren’t surrounded by darkness. In reality, there are also those who choose not to face the truth, because living in ignorance can be simpler.

“A cegueira não era viver banalmente rodeado de trevas, mas no interior de uma glória luminosa.”

“Blindness did not mean to being plunged into banal darkness, but living inside a luminous halo.”

The reader can take from the novel that we need not only to see, but most of all to see with lucidity if humanity is to prosper.

We don’t know for sure where or when the action takes place, besides it mainly being set in a city. It could have happened anywhere and to anyone, as the characters are not named. In fact, no names are ever mentioned. At a certain point in the narration, the blind people living at the asylum start sharing stories about the last things they saw. One was at a museum and so describes the paintings he spotted there. The others try to guess the countries of origin of the painters, instead of deducing their names.

The writing style is recognisably characteristic of José Saramago. There are no quotation marks. The dialogues and characters’ thoughts are differentiated by the use of a comma followed by a capital letter. The paragraphs are quite long and can stretch for more than a page. Nevertheless, this is quite a readable book which flows really well.

Ensaio sobre a Cegueira is an inspiring and thought-provoking novel about human beings facing a life-threatening situation. For it to be perfect, I just wish I had connected more deeply with the characters and cared a little bit more about their fates. The situation they are confronted with is so extreme that it feels like nothing that could have happened to them would be worse than what they were already facing.

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