By Jose Saramago
Paperback, 352 pages
List Price: $15
The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called. The motorists kept an impatient foot on the clutch, leaving their cars at the ready, advancing, retreating like nervous horses that can sense the whiplash about to be inflicted. The pedestrians have just finished crossing but the sign allowing the cars to go will be delayed for some seconds, some people maintain that this delay, while apparently so insignificant, has only to be multiplied by the thousands of traffic lights that exist in the city and by the successive changes of their three colours to produce one of the most serious causes of traffic jams or bottlenecks, to use the more current term.
The green light came on at last, the cars moved off briskly, but then it became clear that not all of them were equally quick off the mark. The car at the head of the middle lane has stopped, there must be some mechanical fault, a loose accelerator pedal, a gear lever that has stuck, problem with the suspension, jammed brakes, breakdown in the electric circuit, unless he has simply run out of gas, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened. The next group of pedestrians to gather at the crossing see the driver of the stationary car wave his arms behind the windshield, while the cars behind him frantically sound their horns. Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it will not hold up the traffic, they beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movements of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind.
Who would have believed it. Seen merely at a glance, the man's eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open, the wrinkled skin of the face, his eyebrows suddenly screwed up, all this, as anyone can see, signifies that he is distraught with anguish. With a rapid movement, what was in sight has disappeared behind the man's clenched fists, as if he were still trying to retain inside his mind the final image captured, a round red light at the traffic lights. I am blind, I am blind, he repeated in despair as they helped him to get out of the car, and the tears welling up made those eyes which he claimed were dead, shine even more. These things happen, it will pass you'll see, sometimes it's nerves, said a woman. The lights had already changed again, some inquisitive passersby had gathered around the group, and the drivers further back who did not know what was going on, protested at what they thought was some common accident, a smashed headlight, a dented fender, nothing to justify this upheaval, Call the police, they shouted and get that old wreck out of the way. The blind man pleaded, Please, will someone take me home. The woman who had suggested a case of nerves was of the opinion that an ambulance should be summoned to transport the poor man to the hospital, but the blind man refused to hear of it, quite unnecessary, all he wanted was that someone might accompany him to the entrance of the building where he lived. It's close by and you could do me no greater favour. And what about the car, asked someone. Another voice replied, The key is in the ignition, drive the car on to the pavement. No need, intervened a third voice, I'll take charge of the car and accompany this man home. There were murmurs of approval. The blind man felt himself being taken by the arm, Come, come with me, the same voice was saying to him. They eased him into the front passenger seat, and secured the safety belt. I can't see, I can't see, he murmured, still weeping. Tell me where you live, the man asked him. Through the car windows voracious faces spied, avid for some news. The blind man raised his hands to his eyes and gestured, Nothing, it's as if I were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea. But blindness isn't like that, said the other fellow, they say that blindness is black, Well I see everything white, That little woman was probably right, it could be a matter of nerves, nerves are the very devil, No need to talk to me about it, it's a disaster, yes a disaster, Tell me where you live please, and at the same time the engine started up. Faltering, as if his lack of sight had weakened his memory, the blind man gave his address, then he said, I have no words to thank you, and the other replied, Now then, don't give it another thought, today it's your turn, tomorrow it will be mine, we never know what might lie in store for us, You're right, who would have thought, when I left the house this morning, that something as dreadful as this was about to happen. He was puzzled that they should still be at a standstill, Why aren't we moving, he asked, The light is on red, replied the other. From now on he would no longer know when the light was red.
Excerpted from Blindness by Jose Saramago Copyright 1995 by Jose Saramago. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
A man sitting in a car at a traffic light suddenly loses his sight and sees nothing but whiteness. A kindly passerby drives the blind man home and then steals the blind man’s car. The blind man’s wife takes the unfortunate fellow to an eye doctor, but the doctor is mystified. Later, the car thief, the doctor, and the patients who were in the doctor’s waiting room at the time of the blind man’s arrival all lose their vision. The government attempts to contain the epidemic by isolating the blind in a vacant mental hospital guarded by soldiers who have orders to shoot anyone who tries to leave. The doctor’s wife, who has claimed to be blind in order to accompany her husband, is the only witness as more and more sightless people arrive at the hospital.
Life in the hospital grows steadily worse. The only blind internees who are able to organize themselves effectively are members of a gang headed by one man who has managed to smuggle a gun into the hospital. After a rebellion against the tyranny of the gang members, a fire breaks out and the internees flee the hospital. The soldiers do not open fire because the soldiers are gone. Everyone has gone blind. The doctor’s wife leads a small group, made up of the patients from the waiting room, back to a city in which civilization has collapsed.
Jose Saramago’s novel BLINDNESS is a parable, in which blindness symbolizes the inability to see things as they are. This inability leads to an uncleanliness that is both moral and physical. The book’s pessimism about the human condition is tempered with humor and sympathy for its characters’ struggles to survive and maintain dignity in the face of hardship.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1969.
Library Journal. CXXIII, August, 1998, p. 134.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 6, 1998, p. 2.
The New Republic. CCXVIII, November 30, 1998, p. 48.
New Statesman. CXXVII, October 16, 1998, p. 58.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, October 4, 1998, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 13, 1998, p. 62.
The Times Literary Supplement. December 19, 1997, p. 20.
The Village Voice. September 22, 1998, p. 150.
The Washington Post. October 9, 1998, p. D1.