Epidemics and plagues when set their unholy feet in any place where the human race is in permanent sojourn, brings along chaos. The black fever back in the time of Dark Ages and early Renaissance would fish out the whole population of a specific area, sometimes.
In the lines below we will be discussing another form of an epidemic, not fatal but more dangerous than any of a kind science has acquainted itself with; as bleak as a funeral and as horrifying as crows eating the corpse meant for burying.
José Saramago, Noble laureate and one of the finest writers, published this novel in 1995 and it was translated into English in 1997. The committee who assessed his work for Nobel Prize also included this one of a kind novel in the list.
It opens up with a very casual start, nothing specific, just a road, another day, long line of motorists waiting for a traffic signal and passers-by on their errands. In this calmest and idyllic atmosphere, a storm is in the making. It unfolds in this manner, “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.”
The first victim of this epidemic, first one to contract ‘White Sickness’, the next one is the man who accompanies him to his house and later taking advantage of the opportunity slips away with the blind man’s car. Then, in a matter of few days, the disease extends and flexes, every day claiming a new life.
José tries to make the presence of a very subtle organ, unnoticed before, taken for granted, felt. Eyes, perhaps the mightiest of nature’s gift to mankind, because only through eyes the timeless beauty and marvelous curves of it can be delivered to our sense so that we can pass the praises magnanimously.
In no time a large part of the city is left blind and can only see whiteness, smooth like the foam which is generated by the waves when they touch edges of the shore for a second and then return back to the immensity from which they sprouted. The government, now concerned, less for those who are blind and more for those who are still fine, plans to keep the affected in an abandoned quarantine situated on outskirts of the city.
Van after van drops the blind people in those unhygienic and isolated cubicles so that this disease can be confronted. Among all the blind people who have been shifted there, one woman who happens to be the wife of an eye specialist can still see, just like normal people. When the van from Ministry of health knocked their door to fetch the husband, she faked and announced she has gone blind too. God knows what sentiments and emotions she embarked on this journey which was not even meant for her but later reader will be bound to appreciate her as she’ll be the one who’ll keep the disorder at bay to some extent. She’ll work like a pair of eyes for all the blind there.
In the beginning, everything worked in a set order. From personal hygiene to the distribution of food but as soon as more blinds were dropped there, the situation became out of control. This is when José through the power of his imagination, takes the reader along to feel what a disorganised world feels like.
In the last part of the novel when the quarantine is accommodating more than it was designed for, riots become the order of the day, few hoodlums start bullying people and only give food if women there agree to satisfy their sexual desires. The line is too thin which defines behavioural patterns of a civilised man and of a beast, even when going through the darkest hours some humans would have their joke, at any cost.
In the end, the whole town is blind, but then slowly the eyesight returns. The experience may have taken its due cost but if anything is learned from it, no matter how small, it’s worth the cost.
José Saramago’s novel brings together the small parts which complete a society. Some of them are wicked, brutal and hard to look at, but even then they are there, standing erect as a reality.