Saramago’s “Blindness” – How People React to Disaster

Why would I look for fiction about a pandemic?  Seeking literary meaning in a world of apocalyptic possibilities, I found Jill Lapore’s article for the New Yorker – What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About

(the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human),

listing so many choices for fiction from the fourteenth century Decameron to Camus’s The Plague.  Mary Frankenstein wrote a story scarier than Frankenstein in The Last Man, imagining the extinction of the human race by a global pandemic, but the most appealing was Jose Saramago’s Blindness.

I knew Saramago from his slim but powerful volume, The Elephant’s Journey, a book I had picked up in a bookstore years ago for its appearance – small and thin, easy to slide into my travel bag – not knowing the weight of its message. Although the author wrote over two hundred books and won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I had never looked for more of his stories.  Now here was Blindness, a book about a pandemic striking its victims blind – not a cheery topic in this real time of global infection promising an end to the world as we know it.  Wisely rebuffed by my friends for a Zoom book discussion, the book was hauntingly appealing to me for its relevance. I decided to read it.

From the first Saramago drew me into a tense and wary scene.  This man who never wore glasses and was in perfect health had stopped at a red light while driving, blinked, and suddenly was blind – seeing not a black void but a white impenetrable denseness.  Because the author never uses quotation marks in the running dialogue, the action seems more intense. The newly blind man’s thoughts are interspersed with his conversation with others – his rescuer, his wife, the doctor.  Amazingly, this style never confuses the reader; rather magnifies the characters’ feelings and invites the reader into the story.  I felt I could shout out warnings and be heard as I read, as one by one the blindness spreads from the good Samaritan who helps the first blind man home and then steals his car to the ophthalmologist the man consults and to everyone in the waiting room.

As more and more are afflicted, noone is named.  The reader can identify them as the Doctor, the Doctor’s wife, the woman with the sunglasses, the man with the black patch, the dog of tears.  The government decides to isolate the initial group in an empty mental hospital, treating them minimally with boxes of food twice a day.  The conditions are horrific, but only one person can see it – the wife of the ophthalmologist who feigned blindness to be with her husband.  The conditions get worse as more blind are afflicted and packed into quarantine, and outsiders become more fearful.

The story inside escalates to a war between those first blind and those newly blind.  Food becomes more precious than gold, and sanitation is abandoned to squalor as the toilets break down with no one to repair them.  The newly blind find a way to keep the others from going out to the courtyard to retrieve the boxes of food dropped by the soldiers before they run in fear of contamination.  The leader has a gun and at first, this group demands payment for food by rings, bracelets, watch fobs – anything of value; when this runs out, they demand payment in women.

The wife of the doctor, hiding her ability to see, sneaks in during one of these rape scenes, and using her sewing scissors stabs the leader in the neck, killing him.  More riots follow, but as the first group runs into the courtyard to plea for help from the armed soldiers, they realize they have been deserted.  They escape into the city to discover everyone has gone blind, some wandering the streets in small hordes looking for food.

In 2010 Myla Goldberg wrote in a review for NPR:

Saramago describes disaster’s potential to bring out both the best and worst of people, from the misguided actions of the city government, to the clear-headed ministrations of a blinded doctor and the bravery of his sighted wife…Saramago tackles all of human nature — love, loyalty, fear, jealousy, bravery, heroism, cowardice, violence, happiness, disappointment — it’s all in there,

Moments of brutality scrape against acts of kindness throughout.  Although this is a dark story, elements of humor and adventure puncture the misery – even a love story surfaces.  The ending is a happy and hopeful one but not without irony.

 

 

 

Lingering Library Books When You Are Not Sure How Long the Library Will Remain Closed

Library books don’t always make my cut. Lately, I had been discarding some after a few pages, but since the reopening of the library here is an unknown, I’ve given the books I checked out before the library closed a second look and determinedly read them. Here are three books I probably would not have finished if I were not sheltering in place, but they did pass the time.

 

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

A slow slog through a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is dying did not, at first, capture my interest; however, as I forced myself to continue into the saga, I found a strange connection to current repulsive men who are celebrated for their egregious lives. Vincent is a power-hungry real estate developer who cheats on his wife and sexually abuses her and others, including his daughter-in-law. As he gets richer, the misery he causes gets worse.  The author calls him a “bad man,” an understatement, whose wife has stuck by him through it all.

Through a day as he lay dying in the hospital, Atttenberg explores Victor’s influence on the lives of his wife and now grown children.  Each has a story increasingly miserable, and the book ends with Vincent’s body unceremoniously thrown into a common grave, as the others move on, their lives forever marked by him.  Not a happy story, and probably not one I would have read, but it does give insight into how the abused cope, sometimes surviving and sometimes even thriving.

 

Little by Edward Carey

As I read this book, published in 2018, I was sure I had read it before. Although  I had  no evidence, the story kept being familiar. I finally found the title in a list of library books I published in December, 2018, but no review.

The opening introduces the narrator, Anne Marie Grosholtz — known as Little for her small stature.  The book includes black and white illustrations throughout and the first is of Marie’s mother’s strong nose and her father’s upturned chin, combined not as attractively into their young daughter.  Both die when she is six years old, and little Marie is sent to live as an apprentice to Curtius, a gruff sculpturor who creates Marie’s face in wax.

Carey continues with the narrator’s description of their lives in Paris, creating wax heads of famous nobleman and dressing them in the period attire to display in the window.  Marie continues her story as she grows into Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution.

I skipped through some of the more vivid descriptions of the war; Carey mingles history with the growth and popularity of Tussaud as she uses decapitated heads for her models.  She eventually lands in prison awaiting the dreaded guillotine but regains her freedom and the story ends with an eighty-nine year Marie in business in London.

The historical facts are grim and Tussaud’s life is a sad one.  I probably returned this book to the library the first time unfinished.

 

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

When the book was described in a review as a coming of age novel about Zelda, born with fetal alcohol syndrome, I decided to research exactly what the term means.  Zelda had alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, causing learning and behavior problems, including difficulties with memory or attention, and impulse control and judgment – the reason she could not be responsible for herself at twenty-one, and lived with her brother. Although I did not read the extensive research available, I understood the premise and started to read this young adult novel, written in the voice of a girl whose life and mind at first seem limited and juvenile.

I stopped not long after, not because I’m a prude, but sex started to pervade the story; the foul language and double entendres were irritating and distracting from Zelda’s quest for independence. I made it through to the end as Zelda conquers her fears, becomes self-assured and independent, despite her difficult beginning.

The title refers to Zelda’s obsession with Vikings and her need to have structure and rules  to cope.  Her bible is a book by a retired professor outlining the history and culture of the Vikings, and she uses it to organize her life and to make life-altering decisions. Sadly, the insertion of sexual language and actions, many of which Zelda did not always seem to understand, seemed exploitive and did not add to the story.

 

Only one library book left before I delve into my own stash.   I have high expectations for Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea.  Have you read it yet?

 

The Sky is Falling on Two Percent

Ron Charles recently wrote in his Washington Post Book Club column – “Tom Perotta’s ‘The Leftovers’ might become U.S. policy,” reminding me of the 2011 novel about an apocalypse with two percent of the world’s population vanishing.

Charles points out the U.S. President has proposed tolerating the death of just one or two percent of us, as he urges the country to go back to work – Trump said: “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents…”

Perotta frames his story around the 98 percent who are left.  Two percent doesn’t seem so large a number; Emily St. John Mandel’s  “Station Eleven”  imagines that a flu kills off 99 percent of the world’s population. Yet, who would volunteer to be one of the millions who are sacrificed for the good of the economy in an election year?

I looked back to my review of The Leftovers in 2011 and am posting it here.  Chilling how fiction mirrors real life.

Review of The Leftovers

Comfort in Crisis – Read a Book

Are books contagious?  Could the virus now circling the globe be hiding in the pages of a library book?  Librarians strongly advise not trying to wash down the pages of your library books with Purell, but the Library of Congress has closed and Ron Charles of the Washington Post notes books returned to the library may have to be quarantined.  He writes about the Great Books Scare in the eighteenth century when books were sterilized by fire, and advises us to “…stay alert to what might ignite such paranoia again.”

When customers are fighting over the last ream of toilet paper, and breathing seems optional or even dangerous, a book can be as comforting as chocolate.  Fiction can take you somewhere else for a while.  I have a friend who does not check out books from the library, preferring to order audible or ebooks, sometimes buying one new.  I do have two books from the library:

  1. All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
  2. A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

It is somewhat reassuring that I am the first to check them out.

But my savior may be Eric Larson’s new nonfiction book, The Splendid and the Vile, which I pre-ordered and received in the mail in its spanking new condition.  There’s a different aroma from a new book, and it’s comforting to turn crisp clean pages, but despite Larson’s subject matter, his story may be reassuring.  As Larson describes Churchill’s calm  leadership dealing with the escalation of World War II in Britain in the year before America joined the fray, the story evolves like fiction.  Yet it is not.  It’s a good reminder; the worst happens again and again, and somehow we manage.

What are you reading?

 

Three Hours

I found Rosamund Lupton in Heathrow airport during a long layover, and devoured her debut novel Sister before I boarded the plane.  Since then I have anxiously waited for her novels to travel across the pond; but Three Hours was too long to wait.  I still have not seen it in stores here but I found it through the Book Depository and escaped into its world, reading through it in one day.  I love it when a book captures me; it’s been a while since a story has been so compelling.

Three Hours reminded me of the first of Ann Patchett’s novels, Bel Canto, with its theme of hostages, terror, lives intersecting and morphing into positive and negative influences, with a well constructed plot leading to surprises at the end. Lupton updates her characters to students in a liberal British school, unknowingly infiltrated by a psychopath who has connected with a hate filled group.  Students tweet and send messages through all the current social media and learn how to make bombs and adapt machine guns on the internet; they are more adept than their teachers and parents, of course.  Two Syrian refugees, one who proves to be a hero, provide the fulcrum as the story unravels through three hours of terror in the school.

So much happens, the three hours could have been weeks, as the reader watches students, teachers, parents, and the attackers through the lens of innocence and bias.  Macbeth plays a pivotal role on the story, and as someone who has read and taught the play, I was impressed by how Lupton integrates Shakespeare’s universal themes into today’s world.  As their fellow students are held hostage in the library, barricaded by books, and in a small pottery shed, making clay animals, the seniors rehearse the play in the seemingly foolproof theater.  The play’s murders and the infamous witches are suddenly relevant to the horror around them, and Birnam Wood will never be the same.

A fast paced thriller with not so subtle implications for today’s world, Three Hours is another of Lupton’s amazing rides.

Related Posts:

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

The Quality of Silence

Sister