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Listening to the Silence

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Blindness - José Saramago, Giovanni Pontiero "Then, as if he had just discovered something that he should have known a long time ago, he murmured sadly, This is the stuff we're made of, half indifference and half malice."

Imagine that you're in your car, stopped at a traffic light; suddenly the whole world goes white and you're blind. This is how Jose Saramago's award-winning novel opens. With a single man struck by blindness. Eventually this blindness spreads to every person he has been in contact with, from the person who helped him home, to his wife, to the eye doctor he saw and all the patients in his office. It spreads rapidly, prompting the government to quarantine all of those who have been blinded and all of those whom have had contact with the blind. An abandoned mental asylum is chosen as the quarantine location. The internees are guarded by soldiers who are terrified that they too will go blind, treating the blind as little more than criminals, with orders to shoot if the sick and contaminated get too close. The rest of the novel tells the story of what happens within the wards of their confinement.

This novel surprised me. I had previously heard of it, and thought it was something I might like to read, so I was fairly pleased when my book club made it our August selection. What I had not expected was to be hooked from start to finish. I literally sat up until 2:30 in the morning finishing the book, unable to put it down to go to sleep. Even after I did go to sleep, I laid awake thinking of it. Saramago seems to have a very strong grasp upon human nature which made the book feel real. Given today's society, if some medical crisis of this nature were to actually occur, I could easily see that our own collapse would happen in nearly the same fashion he described.

Saramago's writing style is experimental. He uses almost no punctuation beyond commas and periods with miles of sentences in between. None of the characters are given names, instead referred to by defining characteristics such as the doctor, the first blind man, the car thief, the man with the black eye patch. For some this could be off-putting. For me it was perfect. I thought that the stylization only emphasized the bleak reality of the blind, their loss of identity and the breakdown of civilization into chaos. However, this could deter a lot of readers, which is unfortunate, because if you can past that into the real heart of the story, it is completely unforgettable.