Blindness by Jose Saramago

Considering that this book review is only being assigned due to the theatrical release of the 13-year old Blindness (11 years in English translation), it only makes sense to discuss both film and book. Let me begin by saying that when I read this book for the first time, it immediately became my favorite novel, and I have since read everything this Portuguese author has written.

His Nobel Prize was in good faith — he is one of those rare scribes who has truly found an original voice, redefining literature through his seemingly “ungrammatical” refusal to use any punctuation other than periods and commas. His sentences can last three pages, and yet the reader is never lost, never once not amazed at how one man can create so profound a rumination on universal topics wrapped into the heart and soul of everyman.

This is the major reason why it is impossible to make a film “as good” as the book. The medium of movies creates distance between the characters and the individual. When plastered across the screen, no longer can you understand the unnamed characters in Blindness as differing aspects of one person; no longer do you integrate the emotional and psychic content of each voice as one aspect of yourself.

The movie is symbolic of the Genesis — the one becomes the many, and the many are separate from the one who is yourself. The doctor’s wife is now Julianne Moore, not the strong archetypal feminine motif; the doctor is the dim-witted but lovable (or, at least mostly likable) Mark Ruffalo, not the uncertain persona within each of us capable of self-doubt and deceit.

That said, Fernando Meirelles’s adaptation is outstanding on a number of levels. While I was slightly skeptical entering the theater, I had to remember this is the man who directed City of God and The Constant Gardener. Like those two movies, Blindness is cinematically stunning and mentally stimulating.

The story centers on the idea that an entire population, save one woman, in an unnamed city (in the movie, Toronto) goes blind with whiteness. Meirelles represents this with rich flashes of white soaking the screen, the images of people and objects insinuating without actually being those people and objects. Of course this is only on occasion, but the drama it invokes is brilliant — what would these people do if suddenly and without explanation going blind?

Fall apart, goes Saramago. The book is a meditation on the human response to fear, but it is also a scripture of community. By nature the work is political (his “sequel,” Seeing, contemplates what would happen if no one came out to vote on election day, with the doctor and his wife briefly reappearing), yet both Saramago and Meirelles focus more on the internal politics — how do we govern ourselves? How do our decisions regarding how to live affect those around us and the world at large? Who are we when things do fall apart, and how do we rise to the occasion?

In both movie and book, each person’s answer defines who they truly are — some end in laughter and friendship, others in death. It reminds me of Karen Armstrong’s assertion that it is our behavior, not our belief that defines who we are religiously and as people. Saramago contemplates the eternal through a variety of individuals unique and capable of varying degrees of compassion and leadership.

Most capable of both is the doctor’s wife, the only remaining human with sight. Her husband was among the first to go blind, and she jumps into the van to be driven off to the mental ward turned containment unit to be with him. The prisoners — for that is what they become — grow by the dozens every day; the tribal ethos returns. There are three wards set up, each with its own leader.

As with any tribe, warfare ensues. The bulk of the book centers on the events inside this institution, one which acts as a microcosm of the chaos occurring in the world beyond. While the doctor rises to be leader of Ward One (although guided, of course, by his wife), the bartender, played in the movie by Gael Garcia Bernal, becomes king of Ward Three, a smaller group comprised only of men.

In the book, the bartender is evil incarnate; the cinematic version makes Bernal more of a child who upon becoming empowered (or empowering himself) makes up the rules as he goes. He is goofy — singing Stevie Wonder over the PA, for one — yet quickly becomes drunk with power. Ward Three strongarms the dwindling food supplies being dropped off by governmental soldiers, who behave more as overseers than caretakers.

In the book, Saramago makes the government more dynamic, though equally self-serving. The “blindness” is in some ways created by them, the political body who has gone so far astray from the actual implementation of a harmonious society that their continued betrayal of public trust first initiates, then feeds the malady. The people in the ward act out what has been going on in their culture for some time, albeit in a much more concentrated manner.

One thing to remember about Saramago is the strength of his characters, especially in regards to the feminine. This is the aspect of the book Meirelles masterfully brings to life. After Ward Three collects all the money, jewels, etc. possible — this is Saramago’s genius, showing how even in a situation where such trinkets are worthless, people still cling to possessions — they make their next demand: women.

In a disturbing scene the females must choose who will go sate the animal that is man. After a brave though sad affirmation of most women present — essentially, they stand up when the men of their camp fold — the next scene is even more disturbing, as they allow themselves to be taken.

The book is no less visceral; the silence in the theater was uncomfortably loud, and all you could do was crawl into a ball at the depravity and greed that mankind can sink to. This is the tribal credo at its most profound — the small group ethic (or, in this case, lack of) overrides community building. Capitalism destroys socialism. The few take what the many do not have the power to. It is such a timely movie because it is exactly what America is going through.

And then: redemption. This is the spark that ignites the fire. (We can only hope the same happens to us in America.) One woman is murdered during the rape; the other eight carry her back, lay her on a bed while the men hear but do not see the brutality of their kind, and towel her off with wet cloths. It is enough to invoke tears, and it reminds us of the terror of all forms of rape — physically, psychologically, economically, culturally.

The women have the strength to withstand the chaos; the men shirk at the responsibility, although they too eventually follow the women’s lead. The king is killed by the doctor’s wife, and soon they emerge free from the confines of the ward yet step into another prison — the desolate and impoverished city, left with the thousands who were latecomers to the disease, alone and fending for themselves. The parallel to society as it now need not be suggested, as it is obvious.

Blindness is Sarmago’s most intimate and compelling book, emotional on a level only matched by his The Gospel According To Jesus Christ, another masterpiece that is in some ways more powerful than the Bible, as it invokes Christ’s humanity, not his supposed superhero persona. Like all timeless works, it is very timely at this moment, in a country where we are voting ourselves into blindness by politically considering “more of the same”.

More importantly, however, we must remind ourselves that even the “change we need” can only happen on an individual level, that it cannot be instituted from outside each of our hearts and minds. The blindness happens when we blame the world for our woes and live driven by personal desires. We begin to see when we turn the mirror outside in, and behave according to what we say the beliefs of our great spiritual leaders demand — as a community, as a catalyst for the change we say we so greatly need.

RATING 10 / 10
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