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Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky


'Blindness' by Jose Saramago
Joshua Chaplinsky
When style affects our ability to connect

An unnamed motorist is sitting at a stoplight when he is inexplicably struck blind. A good Samaritan offers help and from there it spreads, introducing us to our cast of characters, becoming an epidemic in the process. An ophthalmologist’s wife remains unaffected, but feigns blindness in order to accompany her husband to quarantine. Together they experience the horrors of a world without sight, and we become witness to the best and worst of humanity.

The cover of the book boasts, “Winner of the Nobel Prize For Literature,” which is deceptive.  The winner in this sentence is Jose Saramago, not the novel itself. The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded for a body of work, not an individual one. Jose Saramago, for who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality, became a Nobel laureate in 1998, three years after Blindness was published.

I know it is blasphemy to bad mouth literary heavyweights, but having only read one of his novels, I’m not so sure I agree with the above statement. Don’t get me wrong, Blindness is a compelling story and an affecting allegory, but the style tends to gets in the way.

Let me explain.  Blindness is one great big run-on sentence. Wikipedia (I know, lazy research) sums up the style thusly:  Saramago's experimental style often features long sentences, at times more than a page long. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs extend for pages without pausing for dialog, which Saramago chooses not to delimit by quotation marks.

I can’t say this is a style I appreciate. This isn’t the drug-induced free form of Naked Lunch we’re talking about here; the man is trying to tell a story. And I just don’t feel this style is conducive to traditional narrative. It could be rationalized as an attempt to immerse the reader in the world of the blind; the overlapping dialog and loose sentence structure forcing us to proceed with caution, making it harder to identify what is happening. That is all well and good in theory, but does not make for the most enjoyable read. And apparently he uses this style in all his books, so it is not a creative decision based on the subject matter. Those used to Chuck’s minimalist style will be washed away in a sea of words.

I also feel the writing style affects our ability to connect with the characters. Saramago spends more time on the narrator’s musings and descriptive asides than he does on the feelings of his nameless protagonists. Sure, we experience their horror and feel their pain, but aside from the doctor’s wife, they are pretty much interchangeable (physical descriptions notwithstanding.)

I didn’t think the film version was the greatest thing ever, but it definitely gave the characters more depth. I also feel like it had greater success communicating what it felt like to be blind. Film being a visual medium, I suppose it has an unfair advantage, but the power of the written word is supposed to surpass all. I also feel like having seen the movie before I read the book, I had a firmer grasp on the narrative, as the film stayed pretty faithful. 

So, to sum everything up- great concept, insightful allegory, but obtrusive style. If you can get past how he writes, Saramago has a lot to say. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, so maybe that’s a good thing.