For its allegorical richness and its near-cinematic vividness, Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese fabulist Jose Saramago’s 1995 novel Blindness, with its portrayals of tenuous interpersonal ties and often-horrific depictions of social disintegration, conjures up comparisons not only to Kafka and Camus but also, with its apocalyptic themes and night-of-the-living-dead settings and dread-beset characters, to movie director George Romero. One apt description touches upon the filmic phantasmagoric waste land as an unaccountable epidemic of “white blindness” strikes an unidentified city:
"We’re going back to being primitive hordes," said the old man with the black eyepatch, "with the difference that we are not a few thousand men and women in an immense, unspoiled nature, but thousands of millions in an uprooted, exhausted world."
In Blindness the authorities start to confine the rapidly growing blind population to vacant and now armed-guarded mental hospitals. Within, hardened criminals among the blind take charge, as rapes occur and rations are stolen. Saramago ties all the disparate characters and thematic threads together, and sets an unrelenting and sustaining tone as he focuses on the actions and events surrounding one group of people whose affliction serves to point up how blindness — the metaphoric stripping away “of the mirrors to the soul,” as the author reminds us — loosens the fragility of human and psychic bonds, and divests us of the will and rationale to maintain them.
In this particular group, one eyewitness who pretends to be blind is central to the parable as she leads a seemingly random group of people — the first blind man, the old man with the black eye patch, a girl with dark glasses, a motherless boy, and the “dog of tears” — to the outside world that has become a chaotic world of the blind. Echoes of the Holocaust, Bosnia, and AIDS come to mind; real life means anything but release and reprieve, raising more parabolic questions and psychological quests even as sight returns.
As the title of Saramago’s sequel of sorts, Seeing, asserts, a little too handily and hackneyed, there are none so blind as those who will not see, as the post 9/11 specter of terrorism and civil rights issues, political polarization and paranoia is added to the allegorical mix. In the same capital city in which Blindness took place four years earlier, an anarchic situation is perceived during an election in which 70% of the ballots cast are blank. After a re-election is held, even more, 83% of the ballots, are blank — with 8% for the party of the ruling right, 8% for the party of the middle, and 1% for the leftist party, a situation that leads to wildly divergent interpretations among the differing factions, from Bartleby-like apathetic expressions, to perceptions of civil disobedience or passive votes of no faith, to myopically-deciphered mandates and consequent assumptions of Katy-bar-the-door revolution as the rightist government, in the face of this “doubtlessly machiavellian” opposition, cracks-ups and cracks down with martial law and repressive draconian measures imposed by the prime minister.