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Nightmarein White

Nightmare
in White

The newest Nobel Prize in Literature, Portuguese writer José
Saramago has just released another book in the U.S. Once again the inimitable Saramago has
created a compelling tale. This time a dark one, dealing with a luminous blindness.
By Bondo Wyszpolski

Blindness, by José Saramago, trans. by Giovanni
Pontiero
(Harcourt Brace, 294 pp., $22)

Like most epidemics, it begins simply enough; a man in his car is waiting for the light
to change. But before it does, he does. People honk, swear, and none of this helps the man
recover his sight: "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."

A luminous whiteness, to be exact.

And the blindness spreads, ignoring the logic that "blindness isn’t something that
can be caught just by a blind man looking at someone who is not, blindness is a private
matter between a person and the eyes with which he or she was born."

The amazing Portuguese writer Jose Saramago has created another compelling tale in his
inimitable style, again ably translated by Giovanni Pontiero who, sadly, passed away as he
was correcting the proofs. Saramago’s stories do not tend to be dark, but this
one—the luminous whiteness to the contrary—is by far the most nightmarish.

To avert the escalation of this strange phenomenon, the handful of people who have
contracted this white sickness, so-called, are rounded up and quarantined in an empty
mental hospital. There are two wings, separated by a kind of no man’s land, each wing with
a courtyard and three wards. There’s a core group, and the book (if you’ll excuse the pun)
will never let them out of sight for very long. These "seven pilgrims" consist
of the first blind man, his wife, the doctor who examined the first blind man, the
doctor’s wife, and three of the doctor’s patients—a young woman with dark glasses, a
boy with a squint, and an old man with a black eyepatch. If this seems like an odd way to
describe characters instead of simply giving them names, it’s because this is how the
author describes them to us. No one in the book has a proper name.

Fortunately for the group, and just as fortunately for us, the doctor’s wife has only
pretended to be blind so that she could stay with and look after her husband. Sure, she
expects to lose her sight at any moment, but as the book continues so does her vision. But
don’t think she’s gloating with pleasure over this. Occasionally she considers her being
spared "contemptible and obscene. I have no right to look if the others cannot see
me."

As these personal catastrophes multiply, it’s clear that the best and the worst in
people will be brought forth. One slight incident leaves the doctor murmuring, "This
is the stuff we’re made of, half indifference and half malice." Later, having to
wallow in shit, literally in shit because the lavatories are becoming useless, he’s
reduced to tears of frustration. "There are many ways of becoming an animal…
this is just the first of them."

A third of the way through the book and now the hospital is full and becoming
overcrowded. The roughly 260 people inside, regardless of what status they enjoyed on the
outside, have been reduced to a common denominator.

The internees colonize their respective wards, stake their turf, so to speak, and try
to instill some order. The doctor’s wife helps her group as much as she can, repeatedly
saying, "If we cannot live entirely like human beings, at least let us do everything
in our power not to live entirely like animals."

But the Orwellian nightmare is unrelenting, the pools of urine and excrement
everywhere, in the hallways and the yards, and while everything smells to high heaven it’s
to the lower depths of hell that we’re sinking. Suddenly, the newly arrived contingent in
the third ward decides to horde all the food (left outside the gate daily by soldiers),
and demands payment for it from the other internees. Valuables are collected and handed
over, but fewer provisions rather than more are given in return.

"After a week, the blind hoodlums sent a message saying they wanted women. Just
like that, Bring us women." Later, when the seven blind, violated women from the
first ward are retreating from that den of iniquity, each one leading the one after her by
the hand, the image we have of them transcends time and place, becoming biblical,
mythological, universal.

The luminous whiteness that each person sees is truly a sad, ironic comment on this
microcosm of society that has become pitch black with unspeakable horror. We have
witnessed the breakdown of law, order, morality; we have seen the futile attempts at
adaptation; and we have seen old fears and superstitions gaining hold. But along the way
Saramago has left a trail of commentary, scattered remarks and phrases for the reader to
chew over and consider, such as the doctor’s "Perhaps only in a world of the blind
will things be what they truly are," or the girl with the dark glasses saying that
"Fear can cause blindness," or the doctor’s wife thinking to herself,
"Blindness is also this, to live in a world where all hope is gone."

The apocalyptic terrors continue when the seven central characters return to the city,
such as it is, from which they were exiled. As they make their way, this uncertain cluster
of humanity may remind us of a similar happenstance group in Saramago’s The Stone Raft,
people randomly thrown together after the Iberian Peninsula pulled free from the rest of
Europe and went spinning off towards the Azores. In that novel, the world unraveled form
the outside; here in unravels from within.

Blindness is stitched together with long sentences, the dialogues often
separated only by commas, so that even the most attentive reader may stumble and have some
doubt as to who is speaking. However, in a book about the loss of sight, or perspective,
it not only seems a brilliant use of Saramago’s stylistic devices, but implies that things
should not be spelled out so clearly. Anyway, a book is always something of a blind movie,
isn’t? You have to rely on your imagination and your vocabulary, not on pictorial images,
to see what’s in front of you.

Saramago has spoken of the impetus that led to his writing The Stone Raft, which is the
persistent notion in much of Western Europe that Spain and Portugal are not really part
of, or integral to, the European community. Fine, Saramago seemed to be responding, we’ll
just pick up and move somewhere else. In Blindness, however, one can only guess at
what the impetus was, in part because there’s so much wrong with the planet and because
Mankind seems to be stumbling through, narrowly averting one holocaust after another. It’s
a cautionary tale, a warning, and a grim meditation on human nature.

The collected works of José Saramago include several acknowledged masterpieces, among
them Baltasar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and The
Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Now we’ll have to make room for Blindness, a
disturbing, compelling novel that’s sure to be discussed for years to come.

Blindness, two excerpts:

Blind men lay stretched out on the long tables in the refectory. From a dripping tap
over a sink full of garbage, trickled a thread of water. The doctor’s wife looked around
her in search of a bucket or basin but could see nothing that might serve her purpose. One
of the blind men was disturbed by this presence and asked, Who’s there, She did not reply,
she knew that she would not be welcome, that no one would say, You need water, then take
it, and if it’s to wash the corpse of a dead woman, take all the water you want. Scattered
on the floor were plastic bags, those used for the food, some of them large. She thought
they must be torn, then reflected that by using two or three, one inside the other, not
much water would be lost. She acted quickly, the blind men were already getting down from
the tables and asking, Who’s there, even more alarmed when they heard the sound of running
water, they headed in that direction, the doctor’s wife got out of the way and pushed a
table across their path so that they could not come near, she then retrieved her bag, the
water was running slowly, in desperation she forced the tap, then, as if it had been
released from some prison, the water spurted out, splashed all over the place and soaked
her from head to foot. The blind men took fright and drew back, they thought a pipe must
have burst, and they had all the more reason to think so when the flood reached their
feet, they were not to know that it had been spilled by the stranger who had entered, as
it happened the woman had realized that she would not be able to carry so much weight. She
tied a knot in the bag, threw it over her shoulder, and, as best she could, fled.

When the doctor and the old man with the black eyepatch entered the ward with the food,
they did not see, could not see, seven naked women and the corpse of the woman who
suffered from insomnia stretched out on her bed, cleaner than she had ever been in all her
life, while another woman was washing her companions one by one, and then herself.

When she reached the street, it was raining buckets, All the better, she thought,
panting for breath, her legs shaking, in this rain the smell will be less noticeable.
Someone had grabbed the last rag that had barely covered her from the waist up, she was
now going around with her breasts exposed and glistening, a refined expression, with the
water from heaven, this was not liberty leading the people, the bags, fortunately full,
are too heavy for her to carry them aloft like a flag… Eyes are also needed to see this
picture, a woman laden with plastic bags, going along a rain-drenched street, amidst
rotting litter and human and animal excrement, cars and trucks abandoned any old way,
blocking the main thoroughfare, some of the vehicles with their tires already surrounded
by grass, and the blind, the blind, open-mouthed and staring up at the white sky, it seems
incredible that rain should fall from such a sky. The doctor’s wife reads the street signs
as she goes along, she remembers some of them, others not at all, and there comes a moment
when she realizes that she has lost her way. There is no doubt, she is lost. She took a
turning, then another, she no longer remembers the streets or their names, then in her
distress, she sat down on the filthy ground, thick with black mud, and drained of any
strength, of all strength, she burst into tears.

MORE EXCERPTS,
IN PORTUGUESE

From Cadernos de Lanzarote-V 

"9 de outubro. Foi muito simples. Encontrávamo-nos na cozinha, Pilar e eu, sós,
quando a rádio informou que o Prêmio Nobel tinha sido atribuído a Dario Fo. Olhámo-nos
tranquilamente (sim, tranquilamente, jurá-lo-ia se fosse necessário) e o disse: `Pronto.
Podemos voltar ao nosso sossego.’ Falámos depois sobre o que naquele momento sentíamos,
e ambos estivemos de acordo: alívio."

"14 de outubro. Frankfurt. Pilar telefonou hoje para casa, a saber se havia alguma
novidade e realmente, sim, havia novidade, a mais inesperada de todas as possíveis,
aquela que nunca seríamos capazes de imaginar: nada mais nada menos que uma chamada
telefónica de Dario Fo a dizer: `Sou um ladrão, roubei-te o prêmio. Um dia será a tua
vez. Abraço-te.’ Mal saído do assombro em que a notícia me tinha deixado, disse a
Pilar: `Suponho que uma coisa assim nunca terá acontecido na história desse prêmio…’,
e Pilar, sábia, respondeu-me: `Não há que perder a confiança na generosidade
humana…’"

From O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo

"Jesus morre, morre, e já o vai deixando a vida, quando de súbito o céu por
cima de sua cabeça se abre de par em par e Deus aparece (…) e a sua voz ressoa por toda
a terra, dizendo, Tu és o meu Filho muito amado, em ti pus a minha complacência. Então
Jesus compreendeu que viera trazido ao engano como se leva o cordeiro ao sacrifício, que
a sua vida fora traçada para morrer assim desde o princípio dos princípios, e (…)
clamou para o céu aberto onde Deus sorria, Homens, perdoai-lhe, porque ele não sabe o
que fez."

From O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis

"A morte de Fernando Pessoa parecera-lhe forte razão para atravessar o Atlântico
depois de dezasseis anos de ausência, deixar-se ficar por cá, vivendo de medicina,
escrevendo alguns versos, envelhecendo, ocupando, duma certa maneira, o lugar daquele que
morrera, mesmo que ninguém se apercebesse da substituição. Agora duvida. Este país
não é o seu, se de alguém é, tem uma história só fiada de Deus e de Nossa Senhora,
é um retrato à la minuta, espalmado de feições, não se lhe percebe o relevo, nem
mesmo com os óculos do Audioscopios. Fernando Pessoa, ou isso a que dá tal nome, sombra,
espírito, fantasma, mas que fala, ouve, compreende, apenas deixou de saber ler, Fernando
Pessoa aparece de vez em quando para dizer uma ironia, sorrir benevolentemente, depois
vai-se embora, por causa dele não valia a pena ter vindo, está em outra vida mas está
igualmente nesta, qualquer que seja o sentido da expressão, nenhum próprio, todos
figurados."

From Cadernos de Lanzarote

"Sebastião Salgado e Lélia, sua mulher, chegaram hoje a Lanzarote e regressam
amanhã a Paris, donde vieram. O objectivo da rápida visita foi conversarmos sobre o seu
projecto de um livro de fotografias, na mesma linha daquele soberbo Trabalho, cuja versão
portuguesa foi editada há três anos. Desta vez, as imagens irão dar público testemunho
da luta dos camponeses brasileiros que fazem parte do Movimento dos Sem-Terra. São
imagens impressionantes da ocupação de herdades deixadas sem cultivo pelos
proprietários, imagens da repressão policial e dos pistoleiros a soldo do latifúndio,
imagens de assassinados, imagens de gente que quer trabalhar e não tem onde, quer comer e
não tem de quê."

From Todos os Nomes

"A decisão do Sr. José apareceu dois dias depois. Em geral não se diz que uma
decisão nos aparece, as pessoas são tão zelosas da sua identidade, por vaga que seja, e
da sua autoridade, por pouca que tenham, que preferem dar-nos a entender que reflectiram
antes de dar o último passo, que ponderaram os prós e os contras, que sopesaram as
possibilidades e as alternativas, e que, ao cabo de um intenso trabalho mental, tomaram
finalmente a decisão. Há que dizer que essas coisas nunca se passaram assim. (…) Em
rigor, não tomamos decisões, são as decisões que nos tomam a nós."

Buy it at
Amazon.com

Blindness
by José Saramago
294 pp

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