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Blindness / Seeing


In Blindness, a city is overcome by an epidemic of blindness that spares only one woman. She becomes a guide for a group of seven strangers and serves as the eyes and ears for the reader in this profound parable of loss and disorientation. We return to the city years later in Saramago’s Seeing, a satirical commentary on government in general and democracy in particular. Together here for the first time, this beautiful edition will be a welcome addition to the library of any ...
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In Blindness, a city is overcome by an epidemic of blindness that spares only one woman. She becomes a guide for a group of seven strangers and serves as the eyes and ears for the reader in this profound parable of loss and disorientation. We return to the city years later in Saramago’s Seeing, a satirical commentary on government in general and democracy in particular. Together here for the first time, this beautiful edition will be a welcome addition to the library of any Saramago fan.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547554884
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/18/2011
  • Pages: 672
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

JOSÉ SARAMAGO (1922–2010) was the author of many novels, among them Blindness, All the Names, Baltasar and Blimunda, and The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

MARGARET JULL COSTA has established herself as the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English today.

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Read an Excerpt

From Blindness

The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called. The motorists kept an impatient foot on the clutch, leaving their cars at the ready, advancing, retreating like nervous horses that can sense the whiplash about to be inflicted. The pedestrians have just finished crossing but the sign allowing the cars to go will be delayed for some seconds, some people maintain that this delay, while apparently so insignificant, has only to be multiplied by the thousands of traffic lights that exist in the city and by the successive changes of their three colours to produce one of the most serious causes of traffic jams or bottlenecks, to use the more current term.
     The green light came on at last, the cars moved offbriskly,
but then it became clear that not all of them were equally quick offthe mark. The car at the head of the middle lane has stopped,
there must be some mechanical fault, a loose accelerator pedal, a gear lever that has stuck, problem with the suspension, jammed brakes, breakdown in the electric circuit, unless he has simply run out of gas, it would not be the first time such a thing has happened. The next group of pedestrians to gather at the crossing see the driver of the stationary car wave his arms behind the windshield, while the cars behind him frantically sound their horns. Some drivers have already got out of their cars, prepared to push the stranded vehicle to a spot where it will not hold up the traffic, they beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head in their direction, first to one side then the other, he is clearly shouting something, to judge by the movements of his mouth he appears to be repeating some words, not one word but three, as turns out to be the case when someone finally manages to open the door, I am blind.
     Who would have believed it. Seen merely at a glance, the man’s eyes seem healthy, the iris looks bright, luminous, the sclera white, as compact as porcelain. The eyes wide open,
the wrinkled skin of the face, his eyebrows suddenly screwed up, all this, as anyone can see, signifies that he is distraught with anguish. With a rapid movement, what was in sight has disappeared behind the man’s clenched fists, as if he were still trying to retain inside his mind the final image captured, a round red light at the traffic lights. I am blind, I am blind, he repeated in despair as they helped him to get out of the car, and the tears welling up made those eyes which he claimed were dead, shine even more. These things happen, it will pass you’ll see, sometimes it’s nerves, said a woman. The lights had already changed again, some inquisitive passersby had gathered around the group, and the drivers further back who did not know what was going on, protested at what they thought was some common accident, a smashed headlight, a dented fender, nothing to justify this upheaval, Call the police, they shouted and get that old wreck out of the way. The blind man pleaded, Please,
will someone take me home. The woman who had suggested a case of nerves was of the opinion that an ambulance should be summoned to transport the poor man to the hospital, but the blind man refused to hear of it, quite unnecessary, all he wanted was that someone might accompany him to the entrance of the building where he lived. It’s close by and you could do me no greater favour. And what about the car, asked someone. Another voice replied, The key is in the ignition, drive the car onto the pavement. No need, intervened a third voice, I’ll take charge of the car and accompany this man home. There were murmurs of approval. The blind man felt himself being taken by the arm,
Come, come with me, the same voice was saying to him. They eased him into the front passenger seat, and secured the safety belt. I can’t see, I can’t see, he murmured, still weeping. Tell me where you live, the man asked him. Through the car windows voracious faces spied, avid for some news. The blind man raised his hands to his eyes and gestured, Nothing, it’s as if I
were caught in a mist or had fallen into a milky sea. But blindness isn’t like that, said the other fellow, they say that blindness is black, Well I see everything white, That little woman was probably right, it could be a matter of nerves, nerves are the very devil, No need to talk to me about it, it’s a disaster,
yes a disaster, Tell me where you live please, and at the same time the engine started up. Faltering, as if his lack of sight had weakened his memory, the blind man gave his address, then he said, I have no words to thank you, and the other replied, Now then, don’t give it another thought, today it’s your turn, tomorrow it will be mine, we never know what might lie in store for us, You’re right, who would have thought, when I left the house this morning, that something as dreadful as this was about to happen. He was puzzled that they should still be at a standstill,
Why aren’t we moving, he asked, The light is on red, replied the other. From now on he would no longer know when the light was red.
     As the blind man had said, his home was nearby. But the pavements were crammed with vehicles, they could not find a space to park and were obliged to look for a spot in one of the side streets. There, because of the narrowness of the pavement,
the door on the passenger’s side would have been little more than a hand’s-breadth from the wall, so in order to avoid the discomfort of dragging himself from one seat to the other with the brake and steering wheel in the way, the blind man had to get out before the car was parked. Abandoned in the middle of the road, feeling the ground shifting under his feet, he tried to suppress the sense of panic that welled up inside him. He waved his hands in front of his face, nervously, as if he were swimming in what he had described as a milky sea, but his mouth was already opening to let out a cry for help when at the last minute he felt the other’s hand gently touch him on the arm,
Calm down, I’ve got you. They proceeded very slowly, afraid of falling, the blind man dragged his feet, but this caused him to stumble on the uneven pavement, Be patient, we’re almost there, the other murmured, and a little further ahead, he asked,
Is there anyone at home to look after you, and the blind man replied, I don’t know, my wife won’t be back from work yet, today it so happened that I left earlier only to have this hit me.
You’ll see, it isn’t anything serious, I’ve never heard of anyone suddenly going blind, And to think I used to boast that I didn’t even need glasses, Well it just goes to show. They had arrived at the entrance to the building, two women from the neighbourhood looked on inquisitively at the sight of their neighbour being led by the arm but neither of them thought of asking, Have you got something in your eye, it never occurred to them nor would he have been able to reply, Yes, a milky sea. Once inside the building, the blind man said, Many thanks, I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you, I can manage on my own now, No need to apologise, I’ll come up with you, I wouldn’t be easy in my mind if I were to leave you here. They got into the narrow elevator with some difficulty, What floor do you live on, On the third, you cannot imagine how grateful I am, Don’t thank me, today it’s you, Yes, you’re right, tomorrow it might be you.
The elevator came to a halt, they stepped out onto the landing,
Would you like me to help you open the door, Thanks, that’s something I think I can do for myself. He took from his pocket a small bunch of keys, felt them one by one along the serrated edge, and said, It must be this one, and feeling for the keyhole with the fingertips of his left hand, he tried to open the door.
It isn’t this one, Let me have a look, I’ll help you. The door opened at the third attempt. Then the blind man called inside,
Are you there, no one replied, and he remarked, Just as I
was saying, she still hasn’t come back. Stretching out his hands,
he groped his way along the corridor, then he came back cautiously,
turning his head in the direction where he calculated the other fellow would be, How can I thank you, he said, It was the least I could do, said the good Samaritan, no need to thank me, and added, Do you want me to help you to get settled and keep you company until your wife arrives. This zeal suddenly struck the blind man as being suspect, obviously he would not invite a complete stranger to come in who, after all, might well be plotting at that very moment how to overcome, tie up and gag the poor defenceless blind man, and then lay hands on anything of value. There’s no need, please don’t bother, he said,
I’m fine, and as he slowly began closing the door, he repeated,
There’s no need, there’s no need.
    Hearing the sound of the elevator descending he gave a sigh of relief. With a mechanical gesture, forgetting the state in which he found himself, he drew back the lid of the peephole and looked outside. It was as if there were a white wall on the other side. He could feel the contact of the metallic frame on his eyebrow, his eyelashes brushed against the tiny lens, but he could not see out, an impenetrable whiteness covered everything.
He knew he was in his own home, he recognised the smell, the atmosphere, the silence, he could make out the items of furniture and objects simply by touching them, lightly running his fingers over them, but at the same time it was as if all of this were already dissolving into a kind of strange dimension,
without direction or reference points, with neither north nor south, below nor above. Like most people, he had often played as a child at pretending to be blind, and, after keeping his eyes closed for five minutes, he had reached the conclusion that blindness, undoubtedly a terrible affliction, might still be relatively bearable if the unfortunate victim had retained suffi cient memory, not just of the colours, but also of forms and planes, surfaces and shapes, assuming of course, that this one was not born blind. He had even reached the point of thinking that the darkness in which the blind live was nothing other than the simple absence of light, that what we call blindness was something that simply covered the appearance of beings and things, leaving them intact behind their black veil. Now,
on the contrary, here he was, plunged into a whiteness so luminous,
so total, that it swallowed up rather than absorbed, not just the colours, but the very things and beings, thus making them twice as invisible…

From Seeing

Terrible voting weather, remarked the presiding offi cer of polling station fourteen as he snapped shut his soaked umbrella and took offthe raincoat that had proved of little use to him during the breathless forty-meter dash from the place where he had parked his car to the door through which, heart pounding, he had just appeared. I hope I’m not the last, he said to the secretary, who was standing slightly away from the door, safe from the sheets of rain which, caught by the wind, were drenching the floor. Your deputy hasn’t arrived yet, but we’ve still got plenty of time, said the secretary soothingly,
With rain like this, it’ll be a feat in itself if we all manage to get here, said the presiding officer as they went into the room where the voting would take place. He greeted, first, the poll clerks who would act as scrutineers and then the party representatives and their deputies. He was careful to address exactly the same words to all of them, not allowing his face or tone of voice to betray any political and ideological leanings of his own. A presiding officer, even of an ordinary polling station like this, should, in all circumstances, be guided by the strictest sense of independence, he should, in short, always observe decorum.
     As well as the general dampness, which made an already oppressive atmosphere still muggier, for the room had only two narrow windows that looked out onto a courtyard which was gloomy even on sunny days, there was a sense of unease which,
to use the vernacular expression, you could have cut with a knife. They should have postponed the elections, said the representative of the party in the middle, or the p.i.t.m., I mean,
it’s been raining nonstop since yesterday, there are landslips and floods everywhere, the abstention rate this time around will go sky-high. The representative from the party on the right, or the p.o.t.r., nodded in agreement, but felt that his contribution to the conversation should be couched in the form of a cautious comment, Obviously, I wouldn’t want to underestimate the risk of that, but I do feel that our fellow citizens’ high sense of civic duty, which they have demonstrated before on so many occasions, is deserving of our every confidence, they are aware, indeed, acutely so, of the vital importance of these municipal elections for the future of the capital. Having each said their piece, the representative of the p.i.t.m. and the representative of the p.o.t.r. turned, with a half- sceptical, half-ironic air,
to the representative of the party on the left, the p.o.t.l., curious to know what opinion he would come up with. At that precise moment, however, the presiding officer’s deputy burst into the room, dripping water everywhere, and, as one might expect, now that the cast of polling station officers was complete,
the welcome he received was more than just cordial, it was positively enthusiastic. We therefore never heard the viewpoint of the representative of the p.o.t.l., although, on the basis of a few known antecedents, one can assume that he would,
without fail, have taken a line of bright historical optimism,
something like, The people who vote for my party are not the sort to let themselves be put offby a minor obstacle like this,
they’re not the kind to stay at home just because of a few mis-
erable drops of rain falling from the skies. It was not, however,
a matter of a few miserable drops of rain, there were bucketfuls,
jugfuls, whole niles, iguaçús and yangtses of the stuff, but faith, may it be eternally blessed, as well as removing mountains from the path of those who benefit from its influence,
is capable of plunging into the most torrential of waters and emerging from them bone-dry.
     With the table now complete, with each officer in his or her allotted place, the presiding officer signed the official edict and asked the secretary to affix it, as required by law, outside the building, but the secretary, demonstrating a degree of basic common sense, pointed out that the piece of paper would not last even one minute on the wall outside, in two ticks the ink would have run and in three the wind would have carried it off. Put it inside, then, out of the rain, the law doesn’t say what to do in these circumstances, the main thing is that the edict should be pinned up where it can be seen. He asked his colleagues if they were in agreement, and they all said they were,
with the proviso on the part of the representative of the p.o.t.r.
that this decision should be recorded in the minutes in case they were ever challenged on the matter. When the secretary returned from his damp mission, the presiding officer asked him what it was like out there, and he replied with a wry shrug,
Just the same, rain, rain, rain, Any voters out there, Not a sign.
The presiding officer stood up and invited the poll clerks and the three party representatives to follow him into the voting chamber, which was found to be free of anything that might sully the purity of the political choices to be made there during the day. This formality completed, they returned to their places to examine the electoral roll, which they found to be equally free of irregularities, lacunae or anything else of a suspicious nature. The solemn moment had arrived when the presiding officer uncovers and displays the ballot box to the voters so that they can certify that it is empty, and tomorrow, if necessary,
bear witness to the fact that no criminal act has introduced into it, at dead of night, the false votes that would corrupt the free and sovereign political will of the people, and so that there would be no electoral shenanigans, as they’re so picturesquely known, and which, let us not forget, can be committed before, during or after the act, depending on the efficiency of the perpetrators and their accomplices and the opportunities available to them. The ballot box was empty, pure, immaculate,
but there was not a single voter in the room to whom it could be shown. Perhaps one of them is lost out there, battling with the torrents, enduring the whipping winds, clutching to his bosom the document that proves he is a fully enfranchised citizen, but, judging by the look of the sky right now, he’ll be a long time coming, if, that is, he doesn’t end up simply going home and leaving the fate of the city to those with a black car to drop them offat the door and pick them up again once the person in the back seat has fulfilled his or her civic duty.
    After the various materials have been inspected, the law of this country states that the presiding officer should immediately cast his vote, as should the poll clerks, the party representatives and their respective deputies, as long, of course, as they are registered at that particular polling station, as was the case here. Even by stretching things out, four minutes was more than enough time for the ballot box to receive its first eleven votes. And then, there was nothing else for it, the waiting began. Barely half an hour had passed when the presiding officer, who was getting anxious, suggested that one of the poll clerks should go and see if anyone was coming, voters might have turned up to find the door blown shut by the wind and gone offin a huff, grumbling that the government might at least have had the decency to inform people that the elections had been postponed, that, after all, was what the radio and tele-
vision were for, to broadcast such information. The secretary said, But everyone knows that when a door blows shut it makes the devil of a noise, and we haven’t heard a thing in here. The poll clerk hesitated, will I, won’t I, but the presiding officer insisted.
Go on, please, and be careful, don’t get wet. The door was open, the wedge securely in place. The clerk stuck his head out, a moment was all it took to glance from one side to the other and then draw back, dripping, as if he had put his head under a shower. He wanted to proceed like a good poll clerk,
to please the presiding officer, and, since it was the first time he had been called upon to perform this function, he also wanted to be appreciated for the speed and efficiency with which he had carried out his duties, who knows, with time and experience,
he might one day be the person presiding over a polling station, higher flights of ambition than this have traversed the sky of providence and no one has so much as batted an eye.
When he went back into the room, the presiding officer, halfrueful,
half-amused, exclaimed, There was no need to get yourself soaked, man, Oh, it doesn’t matter, sir, said the clerk, drying his cheek on the sleeve of his jacket, Did you spot anyone,
    As far as I could see, no one, it’s like a desert of water out there.
The presiding officer got up, took a few uncertain steps around the table, went into the voting chamber, looked inside and came back. The representative of the p.i.t.m. spoke up to remind the others of his prediction that the abstention rate would go skyhigh,
the representative of the p.o.t.r. once more played the role of pacifier, the voters had all day to vote, they were probably just waiting for the rain to let up. This time the representative of the p.o.t.l. chose to remain silent, thinking what a pathetic figure he would be cutting now if he had actually said what he was going to say when the presiding officer’s deputy had come into the room, It would take more than a few miserable drops of rain to put offmy party’s voters. The secretary, on whom all eyes were expectantly turned, opted for a practical suggestion,
You know, it might not be a bad idea to phone the ministry and ask how the elections are going elsewhere in the city and in the rest of the country too, that way we would find out if this civic power cut was a general thing or if we’re the only ones whom the voters have declined to illumine with their votes. The representative of the p.o.t.r. sprang indignantly to his feet, I demand that it be set down in the minutes that, as representative of the p.o.t.r., I strongly object to the disrespectful manner and the unacceptably mocking tone in which the secretary has just referred to the voters, who are the supreme defenders of democracy,
and without whom tyranny, any of the many tyrannies that exist in the world, would long ago have overwhelmed the nation that bore us. The secretary shrugged and asked, Shall I
make a note of the representative of the p.o.t.r.’s comments, sir,
No, I don’t think that will be necessary, it’s just that we’re all a bit tense and perplexed and puzzled, and, as we all know, in that state of mind, it’s very easy to say things we don’t really believe,
and I’m sure the secretary didn’t mean to offend anyone, why,
he himself is a voter conscious of his responsibilities, the proof being that he, as did all of us, braved the elements to answer the call of duty, nevertheless, my feelings of gratitude, however sincere, do not prevent me asking the secretary to keep rigorously to the task assigned to him and to abstain from any comments that might shock the personal or political sensibilities of the other people here. The representative of the p.o.t.r. made a brusque gesture which the presiding officer chose to interpret as one of agreement, and the argument went no further, thanks,
in large measure, to the representative of the p.i.t.m., who took up the secretary’s proposal, It’s true, he said, we’re like shipwreck victims in the middle of the ocean, with no sails and no compass, no mast and no oars, and with no diesel in the tank either,
Yes, you’re quite right, said the presiding officer, I’ll phone the ministry now. There was a telephone on another table and he walked over to it, carrying the instruction leaflet he had been given days before and on which were printed, amongst other useful things, the telephone numbers of the ministry of the interior...

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