In announcing that the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Portuguese novelist José Saramago, the Swedish Academy pointed to their honoree as an author "who with parables sustained by imagination, compassion and irony continually enables us once again to apprehend an elusory reality." High-flown language indeed, but it is an assessment of Saramago's work that is quite on target.
José Saramago, who is thought of as the "grand old man" of Portuguese letters, was born in 1922, and worked for years as a manual laborer before becoming a journalist, translator, and writer. In 1969, Saramago joined the Communist Party and began writing a series of editorial columns for a Lisbon newspaper, columns that were frequently censored by the Salazar dictatorship. When the government was overthrown in 1974, Saramago was named editor of Diario de Noticias, a position that lasted only a year before counterrevolutionary forces took control of the government and the press.
This sudden unemployment led to Saramago's present success. He had written and, amazingly, published a novel at age 25, but the failure of his second novel to find a publisher convinced him to stop writing altogether for 20 years and to stop writing fiction for nearly 30. Saramago's return to fiction came in 1977 with The Manual of Painting and Calligraphy.
In the 30 years since, Saramago has published nine more novels, six of which -- so far -- have been released in the United States. Saramago's reputation is perhaps more widely known across the world than in this country; his novels have been translated into 20 languages, and for some years he has been considered a top contender for the prize which he received just this past December.
In Blindness, the most recent of his books to be released in the U.S., Saramago creates one of the parables that the Swedish Academy recognized as shedding light on an all-too-slippery reality. In this novel, an epidemic of blindness -- bizarre both in its contagion and in the fact that the quality of this blindness is not black, or the absence of light, but rather white, total light -- strikes the nameless citizens of an unnamed country, sending it first into a panicked martial rule and then into sheer chaos. The first victims of what becomes known as "the white evil" are quarantined -- rather, imprisoned -- in order to prevent the spread of the disease, but it quickly becomes evident that the disease spreads not through direct contact but through the process of sight itself. Only one woman, the wife of the opthalmologic who is among the disease's first victims, is untouched; the only possible reason for her immunity rests in the fact that she claims to be blind before she actually is, in order to accompany her husband into quarantine. In falsely labeling herself "blind," she is able to escape the experience of blindness and so becomes our eyes to the devastation that ensues.
The novel's structure lends to its reading as an extended parable on the crises of contemporary culture. The characters remain nameless throughout -- the doctor, the doctor's wife, the first blind man, the girl with dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the woman who can't sleep -- calling our attention to the ways in which we name both people and things, without either seeing or understanding them. The characters point to the metaphoric nature of their blindness once the crisis is over: "Why did we become blind, I don't know, perhaps one day we'll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don't think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see."
This brief quote highlights the surreal experience of reading Saramago: His writing is minimalist to the extreme; his dialogue is not separated by the usual conventions of punctuation but rather runs one speech into the next, with only capital letters indicating a change of speaker. This complete absence of the expected labels creates the reader's own, momentary, experience of blindness, but the rhythm of the language and the power of the story draw the reader in and soon render the strange structure invisible.
Saramago's other novels participate in this same surrealism and also encounter some of these same ideas of the simultaneous power of naming and emptiness of names, and of the blindnesses of history. In The History of the Siege of Lisbon, a proofreader alters the course of history by inserting an innocuous "not" in a key spot in a historical text. In The Stone Raft, the Iberian Peninsula suddenly breaks away from the European continent and drifts out to sea. Baltasar and Blimunda, the 1982 novel that cemented Saramago's literary reputation and was the inspiration for Corghi's opera "Blimunda," is a tale of a seemingly mismatched couple's discovery of love against the backdrop of 18th-century Portugal, torn by the terrors of the Inquisition and the plague. And, in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a doctor and poet who has recently returned from exile finds his native country on the brink of dictatorship while he himself is haunted by the ghost of a recently deceased Portuguese poet.
Saramago's writing, still not widely known in this country, is only beginning to receive the attention that it deserves. His parables, ironic but always compassionate, highlight both the light and the darkness of human nature, demanding that we cast a critical eye on our uses of power while celebrating our ability to overcome terror through love.