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Book 98: Portugal (Portuguese) – Ensaio sobre a Cegueira = Blindness (José SARAMAGO)


The signal finally went green, suddenly the cars sped away, but then it became obvious that not all of them had raced off like that. The first one in the middle lane was stopped, there must have been some mechanical problem, the accelerator loose, the gear lever stuck, or a breakdown in the hydraulic system, locked brakes, a fault in the electrical circuit, if not simply running out of fuel, it wouldn’t be the first time that that had happened. The new gathering of pedestrians on the footpath sees the driver of the immobilised car gesticulating through the windscreen, while the cars behind it honk madly. Some of the drivers have already sprung out into the street, ready to push the broken-down car to somewhere where it won’t block the traffic, and beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head towards them, to one side, to the other, they can see him yelling something, from his mouth movements they gather that he is repeating one syllable, no not one, two in fact, from what they will find when someone, finally, manages to open a door: I’m blind.

[my translation]

And so it all begins, a pandemic even stranger than covid-19. Here is a novel which is unique. In an unnamed place, a mystery illness starts striking everyone which causes them to go suddenly blind. The panicked government starts to cruelly sequester the victims. We follow a group isolated into a mental institution, one of whom appears inexplicably immune (and is here only because of her loyalty to her newly blind husband). We basically see the scenario through her eyes, just as she effectively becomes the group’s eyes. The group quickly revert to basic instincts and reveal (if that’s the right word) their good or bad natures. The institution basically degrades into a Lord of the Flies of adults.
The narrator is an omniscient observer, but doesn’t know everything, for example speculating as to people’s motives, and sometimes seems to be channelled through the eyes and knowledge of the victims. The characters are unnamed, but are described, as if we (at least) can see them. The writing style has very long flowing sentences but for once I didn’t find that annoying but rather a very effective technique with a mesmerising rhythm.
Blindness made me aware of how fragile the veneer of our civilisation and infrastructure is, how it could be unexpectedly thrown into disarray (as has happened to all of us since my reading), and how we might suddenly have to make real moral choices outside a philosophy class. You can’t help asking yourself, how you would act in similar circumstances – would you be a good human being, to what extent would you try to help your fellows and to what extent would you fight for your own survival?
This is a totally moving and thought-provoking story by a master writer. I will definitely be reading more Saramago (a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature).

SARAMAGO, José (1922 – 2010), Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, Porto, Porto Editora, 2017 (first published 2014), ISBN 978-972-0-04683-3

Book 42: Canada (English) – The Blind Assassin (Margaret ATWOOD)

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. the bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens… They’d said Laura had turned the car sharply and deliberately, and had plunged off the bridge with no more fuss than stepping off a curb.

 

Moving on from a tale of two brothers, in my Iraqi book, I come to this tale of the equally fascinating relationship between two sisters. I’ve long been intrigued by this book – even more than by its intriguingly paradoxical title, because of its cover, featuring a slinky woman in an elegant ‘20s party dress, with only one arm. Or so I thought… Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading the book, as well as studying the cover closely, I see that she does actually have two arms! It’s true, you can’t judge a book by its cover! However, the female characters in this novel, especially the central two sisters, really are endlessly intriguing.

This is clever, finely written novel. I love the narrator’s (Iris’) cynical, sarcastic take on her family’s trials, and on the world in general. It is interwoven, matryoshka-like, with a science fiction/fantasy story (’The Blind Assassin’ proper) supposedly improvised by a pair of lovers (who in turn tell each other a pulpy SF story), that the dead sister was writing. The complicated relationship between the two sisters is wonderfully portrayed. Atwood’s intricate plotting is rife with clever devices. In fact it has so much in it that it’s hard to grasp everything at a single reading, and it is continually leaping across genres – family history, science fiction, detection and romance, so trying to categorise it would be hopeless.

This is one that I will definitely read again, as soon as possible! And I will have to read more Atwood!

 

ATWOOD, Margaret (1939 – ), The Blind Assassin, New York: Anchor, 2001, ISBN 0-385-47572-1
[originally published 2000]