Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blindness - Jose Saramago- The Frailty of societies

All countries/societies, whether they be democratic, autocratic have one thing in common. A shared belief in having an ordered/civil society, where by and large things proceed normally and in a civilized manner. But just scratch the surface and we get to see the frailty inherent everywhere and the incompetence of most governments that run these societies. All our false sense of security and stability, requires just a tiny push to come tumbling down. Jose Saramago's Blindness is one such novel that exposes this. However it also shows the other side where some people respond with grace under extreme duress.

Saramago places his entire novel on the hypothetical question of what would happen if many people in a society suddenly become blind. How would the people and the powers to be react. As the novel opens, many people in an unnamed country are struck by a sudden epidemic of blindness. This blindness does not make everything dark, as is generally said, but a milky whiteness as experienced by the people who are affected by it. No character in the novel are named, which is just as  well, since the same could happen to anyone of us and as such the names of such characters do not serve much purpose. As the epidemic spreads, the government panics and comes upon a solution (?) to sort this out. All the affected people are moved to a center and the government sort of washes it's hands of it.

The main characters here are a Doctor and his wife, who by some random chance is not affected by the epidemic. However she goes with her husband to the place all the affected people are re-located to. It is more of a jail, with access to the outside world completely cut off and food being brought everyday by soldiers. The people grouped together by this try to form a familial unit to survive. But the environment inside is horrific. The living conditions and general hygiene degrade to a great extent and people have to live in complete filth. The group of soldiers assigned to control them and keep watch over them too are scared of the epidemic and do not show much interest. In fact, in a case of paranoia, one of the soldiers shoots down an inmate of the center, in a fit of rage. In such a scenario, just imagine a group of people who cannot see suddenly and have been just shunted into a place. They just would not know how to cope with this without any outside help. In a way the hell inside could be a mirror to the same degradation that would be happening outside, since the epidemic would still be spreading.  (As a reader, however we would not know this at this point of the novel, only later, so this is just my afterthought). The doctor's wife tries to help as much as possible, but it is a losing cause only. 

This is just the beginning of their problems. A small group among those affected forms a gang and takes control of access to the food being delivered to them. They form a sort of mafia and start bullying the others. For the women in the center, their nightmare has not yet begun yet. The gang wants some women delivered to them for satisfy their lust in exchange for the food being delivered equally among all. This is again a mirror for what happens in any society, where women have to bear more suffering than men in case of any calamity/wars etc. Haven't we read about women being raped, kidnapped during wars between even small gangs. However much we improve technologically,  our based and primitive instincts are never fully gone and are just lurking beneath the surface. Things come to such a pass, that with the help of the doctors wife, the inmates rebel against the gang and break out of the center. During this the center burns down too. The doctor's wife leads the others out of the center and into the outside world. 

What is seen outside is much worse or at-least as bad as inside the center. There has been complete breakdown of society everywhere. Places are abandoned, looted. No one knows what has happened to the government or if such a thing still exists and is functioning. The outside world is like a post-apocalyptic one and the people are like zombies. People live in abandoned buildings, sleeping wherever they and eating whatever they can find.  With the help of the doctor's wife, the escapees from the center try to form a cohesive unit, when suddenly people start getting their eyesight back. The epidemic leaves as inexplicably as it came. The novel ends here. 

The ending may seem abrupt to some and to of no purpose than to end the novel. I did not feel this way. To me, the epidemic was just a trope used by Saramago to illustrate how unstable we are and how closer to the primitive are we in our mindset than we actually care to know. The trope serves that purpose and as such the epidemic suddenly going off did not strike me as odd.
Saramago's style is different and special in the sense that he eschews most separators like quotation, commas, periods etc. To add to this, he uses long sentences. All these serve to give an impression of a person sitting around a fire and telling a story orally. For all his political leanings, Saramago is a humanist and story teller first and this novel is a perfect blend of both. He does not just give a bleak vision of our societies, but with the character of the doctor's wife, he also shows us that there are still people who can withstand the vagaries of life without losing the basic moral compass that guides us. One is never explicitly told why goes with her husband and suffers all the degradation. Is it love, that's just a fancy word for it. For some to suffer so much when she could basically have taken a chance and got out,  it must be something inherently great with the person. I distilled the novel as the following 'One can believe in the goodness of man, but he should not be surprised by the evil in the same man'
This is a very good read and highly recommended.

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