Blindness, Jose Saramago (1995/1997)

A powerful and engrossing allegory in which the population of an entire city goes blind. But not all at once. The first wave is horribly oppressed by those yet to lose their sight, so that by the time everyone’s gone blind, both those who were the first to be afflicted and those who brought up the rear have all become accustomed to living like feral animals and treating others as such. In short, the novel’s moral is that the golden rule may be to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, but such an ethic is artificial and hopelessly fragile: under duress, everyone’s interest becomes purely self-serving. Or almost everyone’s. One character in the novel retains her sight — no one knows why — and through her guidance literal and moral, a small group of the blind manages to retain their dignity and decency.

Summarizing the book like that, I realize that its plot is really pretty tiresome. What kept me fascinated and involved, I think, is Saramago’s narration, which strikes a perfect tone. The narrator most often lets the characters and their actions speak for themselves, but occasionally lets fall a shrewd line of observation — not unsympathetic, but not without teeth, either — that establishes a terrific sense of moral authority.

Put this on the shelf alongside Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.