I don’t remember being horrified, amazed and inspired all at the same time by one book. I also can’t remember the last time I had nightmares while reading a book. 1984 and Metamorphosis come close, but this one was hitting it too close in the middle of a real pandemic.
The Blindness everyone experiences in the book is an allegory. But to what exactly, or if it is even one thing only, I am still not sure.
"I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see."
This and the fact that it is “white blindness” could mean selective or racial bias. Racism is akin to blindness. When all you can see is whiteness, you might as well deteriorate into order less society–a society willing to pillage, rape and murder. You will exploit others to advance your own self.
Saramago could also be talking about tolerance towards fellow creatures, tolerance in embracing all races, cultures, and kinds of humans no matter how hard it gets:
"The difficult thing isn't living with other people, it's understanding them."
When survival is key, how far will a human go? How much will someone risk? How much pain is a human being capable of inflicting on others? What happens to empathy and civility when humans are pushed to the brink? What defines you–is it who you were yesterday, who you are today, or who you will be tomorrow? If you were good yesterday but decide to do evil things tomorrow (or vice versa), is that the new you?
Saramago brilliantly strews around these questions throughout the story and generously answers some of them too:
"If I'm sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow?"
Perhaps, Saramago is pointing out how we spend most of our living hours in avoiding the inevitable (death) instead of cherishing the present, the now? How, even in the present, we get used to status quo and resist change?
"The habit of falling hardens the body. Reaching the ground, in itself, is a release. I’m staying where I am is the first thought…"
In the last chapter, with the church and the blind drawings, he probably alludes to how religion wastes so much of humans’ time when the very authority preaching it could not be more ignorant than the population? Sort of like blind leading the blind?
The doctor’s wife does not go blind because she is the wisest of them all, one who can see things clearly in a world filled with blind horrors? But she bears the brunt of others’ blindness as much as they do, sometimes more. Her act of reading is perhaps symbolic of her guiding others, and when the first blind man truly listens instead of falling into a stupor, he cannot sleep anymore. He is no longer blind. He reflects. He analyzes. And that is the moment he regains sight. Gradually and eventually, everyone does.
Open Your Eyes By Snow Patrol courtesy Vevo
I like to believe Saramago is speaking to the blind who may or may not know they are blind, to not get used to being blind, but keep their “eyes” open for knowledge, dissent and benevolence, for without their own will and effort, no power can restore sight and vision, of themselves and others.
I like to believe that Saramago is also speaking to those with insight who happen to be living in a blind society. I believe he is talking about their responsibility to guide, support and take part in the betterment of the blind, even when there’s nothing but pandemonium, despair, and no sign of hope.
I’m reminded of the infamous Milgram experiments and the botched Stanford prison experiments. Like the Trolley problem or other ethical dilemmas, this book is a written thought experiment, one of a markedly superior quality because of the medium in which it is presented. Why of course, what could be more fun and effective than a book, especially one where the author jolts the reader, gently leads to a theater of human interactions and leaves you alone to watch the events unravel.
I haven’t had this much pleasure and satisfaction with a book in a long time.
For gnawing my mind with the plot, for making me squirm about the characters, for blowing my mind with the narrative and finally, giving me hope I cannot give this book anything less than 5 stars.