Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Lord of the Blinds

Imagine if Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were the first Tim Burton film you’d ever seen. “My God,” you might exclaim to your couch mate, “This claustrophobic, fairy-tale aesthetic is brilliant; it fits Roald Dahl’s vision perfectly. This Tim Burton is a genius!” Your enthusiasm might wane, however, were your friend to inform you mid-reverie that this is how Tim Burton directs all of his films; in fact, he would have directed both Gladiator and Pride and Prejudice with exactly the same style.

A similar revelation happened to me about 100 pages into Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Initially, I was deeply impressed by what I believed to be a brilliantly appropriate aesthetic choice: in a novel about an epidemic of blindness, Saramago deprives his readers of one of their “senses” by using the only bare minimum of punctuation. How brilliant! How insightful! How…utterly disappointing to find out he writes everything like this. That’s what I get for reading Wikipedia.

That aside, Blindness gets off to a strong start as various unnamed citizens of an unnamed city in an unnamed country are suddenly—and inexplicably—struck blind as they go about their daily lives. Saramago takes advantage of epidemic’s ability to spread through casual contact, giving us a fascinating Six-Degrees-of-Separation cross-section of the city as the affliction spreads. The characters were diverse and interesting, and this first act was a (perversely) fun read.

I lost interest, however, during the second act, which should have been the most interesting; to restrict the spreading of the disease the government confines the blind into an increasingly crowded mental asylum where anarchy and cruelty quickly take hold. Admittedly, it was a fine portrayal of how quickly civilization and civilized behavior break down so easily, and how much we take simple things like a ready food supply and sanitation for granted (I recently read somewhere that the civilized man and the savage are separated only by about three days’ worth of food). However, I felt that the power of the events described in this section was undone by the fact that I’d seen it done elsewhere a million times before: it was 28 Days Later without zombies, or Lord of the Flies with sex. In short, this path was so well-trodden, that Saramago’s blind characters could have stumbled their way along it without too much trouble.

Conclusion: 6/10. Strong at the beginning and end, powerful but utterly predictable in the middle, and undone by unduly its pretentious style.

Nonetheless, much thanks to Amber for the excellent idea of online book club associated with her envy-inducing blog Prettier Than Napoleon.