Blindness is the tale of a man who, while stopped at a red light, goes mysteriously blind. It’s as if a veil of white has been lowered over his eyes.  Worse still, the blindness is contagious and transmits somehow between people who have only seen each other. Spooky.

But I’m being facetious. Blindness is a chilling tale of a society collapsed when one facet of our necessary senses are removed. Saramagos begins his novel with the blinded man, then widens it slightly to a small group of individuals exposed to him. He uses no names, instead referring to that first blind man as “the first blind man”, thereby keeping the emphasis on the traits of the person, and strangely, making it easier to  follow his characters.

This non-naming works well, and is necessary, because Saramagos writes exceptionally long paragraph, sometimes blurring the dialogue into the action, and that into the perceptions of the characters. It’s fascinating.

I’d recommend the book to anyone who’s interested in the fictional what-ifs surrounding the organisation of our daily lives. By removing the characters sight, and placing them in the most hellish situations, Saramagos attempts to draw out the goodness inherent in all of us. He also demonstrates how easy it would be to fall into ‘Lord of the Flies’-type brutalism.

Saramagos’ main device is to place all of the characters in an insane asylum. They’ve been quarantined to protect the majority of the populace, even though it is far to late to stop the epidemic of blindness that sweeps through his fictional city.

And it really does become hell. His descriptions of the filth that people are reduced to when they cannot organise or care for themselves adequately are extremely vivid (I became concerned he has some kind of scatological obsession…), and the depraved behaviour of some inmates is shocking at best.

This is not a book for the light-hearted.

In the end though, Saramagos carries his core characters out of hell, and delivers them to safety in the city. And there they become closer still because of their genuine humanity, their love for one another, and their need for others to protect them. The gentleness that emerges from the pit into which they were cast is uplifting.