Tuesday, April 19, 2011


It's a new life here in Boston and a very exciting one too. Also, it turns out that the Kindle combined with a 30 min. daily commute (each way) on the subway makes an excellent recipe for reading. And thus my once favorite pastime drowned in the whirlpool of an engineering education finally found a chance to resurface. I inaugurated my reading renaissance with the novel Blindness by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.
It was during my first visit to Brookline Booksmith (nothing like having a bookstore next door!) that I happened to flip through a Saramago novel. It was called The Elephant's Journey. As I was weaving through the second page of the book, I was interrupted by an unfamiliar voice.
"So, what do you think?"
I looked up. It was an elderly gentleman. 
"It's weird." That was my first thought and also my reply. "There is hardly any punctuation anywhere. And there are no names either."
"Yeah, all his books are like that. It's a bit tricky initially, but you get used to it."
I read on. I liked his style. It was simple and clean - very different from novels where the plot gets lost under a pile of verbiage and detail. I decided to give his writing a shot. The elderly gentleman was right. You do get used to his style very quickly.
Blindness, at the outset, reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. In contrast with the post-apocalyptic setting of The Road, Blindness follows an imaginary epidemic from its very beginning. [Spoiler Alert] A highly contagious disease strikes a city and eventually the entire country. It is a strange form of blindness, in which everything looks white, not black. Realizing the gravity of the situation surrounding this seemingly incurable disease, the government promptly quarantines those infected. But the epidemic is unstoppable. And what happens to those quarantined? The novelist uses his imagination and presents to us a vivid narrative of what the blind internees experience as the situation deteriorates to the point of complete anarchy.
Everyone is faced with a helpless struggle for survival. Yet, people react in such different ways. On one end are the goons with firearms. Describing their absolute brutality the way the author did takes guts. I would rather not revisit or recollect the barbaric insanity. Moving on, there were those who were embittered by continued suffering, but yet managed to preserve a touch of humanity. An example would be the gruff and lonely old woman who ate hens and rabbits raw. Yet she surprised us in death, as her corpse was found clutching her keys in a way of passing them on to the girl with the dark glasses. The old lady knew the girl would come back there some day to look for those keys driven by her hope to get reunited with her parents.  And, then there were the selfless ones who do not cease to amaze me. I was touched by the subtle details of how the young girl with the dark glasses played a maternal role for the little boy with the squint. It is remarkable considering she was just another young girl who had never been a mother or a wife. Of all the people, the doctor's wife was the only one who could see. Her vision was clearly not limited to her eyes. Her foresight and wisdom saved many.
In my opinion, an important aspect of the storyline is how humans, the social creatures that they are, survive better in groups. The first blind man, his wife, the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, and the man with the black eye patch stayed united till the end. True, it was largely driven by their dependence on the pair of working eyes they had, which, given their situation, was an invaluable asset. Yet, their readiness to help each out sets them apart. Not that they had an easy escape from the tribulations. But the touch of humanity made a big difference to their emotional experience.
On the whole, it was a stimulating read. Given that the original book was in Portuguese, a significant part of the credit goes to the translator Giovanni Pontiero, who, unfortunately, passed away before completing the revision of the translation. Had the tone been a bit more cheerful, I could have read this book a second time. I will try reading some of Saramago's other works though. But, for the rest of this week, I will opt for some lighter reading. Time for some Wodehouse. :-)


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  2. Where was the Spoiler alert disclaimer!!!

    Good to see you getting some free time to read and write something other than paper and thesis :)

  3. It's right there! How did you miss it?

    Kidding! Thanks for pointing out. Corrected. :-)

  4. Thank you for the reading recommendation notwithstanding the caveat that the tone could have been a 'bit more cheerful'. Isabel Allende who was at USC last year drew some gasps when she cheerfully declared, 'Happiness is overrated!' However she seems to have a point when we ask ourselves, "Were most of the things we are most proud of, done with grinning faces or with gritted teeth?"

  5. @Seeker: Point taken. That said, I read fiction partly because it lets me view the world with other people's eyes and thus helps me grow and also because the narrator's imagination often helps fuel my own - an exercise that tends to be very relaxing. A cheerful tone definitely helps achieve the latter goal.