I had been hoping to get to José Saramago’s Blindness this summer anyway, so it is mostly coincidence that leads me to be posting on it so soon after his death. It is easy to see why Blindness has become such an international success—it is convincingly and frighteningly apocalyptic, yet also far transparently allegorical than most apocalyptic narratives (none of the characters have names, for example, and there is little local specificity of any sort). Much of the novel has a feel of The Lord of the Flies with grownups. And perhaps this is why I’m surprised I like the novel so much: I didn’t really like Golding’s novel, nor do I generally care for allegory. Perhaps it is simply that I so easily am caught up in the terror of the possibility of going blind, which I am a little surprised more writers have not explored, at least in my reading experience.
When I read António Lobo Antunes earlier this summer, I recall running across a claim that Antunes and Saramago had a well-known rivalry within Portuguese literature, and a comparison of this novel with Knowledge of Hell suggests the general aesthetic grounds for disagreement. Antunes is a writer with a much stronger tie to place and the problems of modernity, whereas Saramago wants to address concepts of basic humanity (or inhumanity) in a universalizing lack of spatial or temporal context. Both have a tendency to the long sentence and surrealism, but enact them to different effects. With Antunes, the long sentences derive from the modernist representation of mind—even while the sentences are grammatically sound and are not stream-of-consciousness per se, they suggest a train of thought. The same is true of the surrealism, which mostly results from Freudian dream-like conflations and displacements. In Saramago, by contrast, the long sentences are very often just a series of simple sentences spliced together, a neat formal representation of the way that dialogue gets semi-detached from distinct voices for these newly-blind people. Sentences frame particular conversations rather than moments within conversation. The surrealism is also much more that of horrible and degraded situations in gothic fiction: the inexplicable plague of blindness (a perfectly terrifying invention for this thought experiment), the descent into inhumane behavior it brings.
On the whole I am the kind of reader who prefers what Antunes does a little more, even though I think in this particular comparison Blindness holds together as a novel more convincingly than Knowledge of Hell. I think that someone could claim (and perhaps has claimed) that Saramago is basically trading in a watered-down (amongst other things, easier to read) modernism, but it might as easily be said that Antunes is a little too faithful to the Faulknerian model.