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In Saramago's 'Blindness,' A Vision Of Human Nature

I am not a person who re-reads books. The world is too large, and life too short. A book re-read steals time away from a new book I have yet to discover, a book that on my death bed will have gone unread. So, when I tell you that I have read Blindness, by Jose Saramago, three times, you will know how serious I am about it. Three times is two times more than I've ever voluntarily read any other book in my adult life.

My favorite books are serious, but with a sense of humor, philosophical without being pedantic, and slightly fantastical without being silly. On top of that, they've got to be smart, insightful, honest and beautifully written. In Blindness, we learn that an epidemic of blindness is sweeping through a city, and from that premise, Saramago tackles all of human nature — love, loyalty, fear, jealousy, bravery, heroism, cowardice, violence, happiness, disappointment — it's all in there, revealed through characters so beautifully rendered, so vibrant on the page, that each time I read it, I immediately join Saramago's sightless band, tossed together by circumstance first into a chaotic quarantine center for the newly blind, and then loosed into a world that has fallen apart.

Saramago describes disaster's potential to bring out both the best and worst of people, from the misguided actions of the city government, to the clear-headed ministrations of a blinded doctor and the bravery of his sighted wife, who has feigned blindness in order to stay by his side when the blind are shut away from the seeing world.

Saramago was the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127937287">died in June</a> at age 87.
Bengt Eurenius / AP
Saramago was the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in June at age 87.

In 2005, when I heard the horror stories that were coming out of New Orleans' Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it was chilling how closely they matched the experiences of Saramago's quarantined characters, but it was also thrilling: Here was a writer who had gotten it right, who had nailed human nature so precisely that the real world was mirroring what his imagination had conjured, under slightly different circumstances, years before.

OK, so maybe the book is a little dark — all right, more than a little dark — but it's also a rollicking adventure story, and a love story, and a story of triumph over adversity. Saramago tells his tale with humor and compassion, and with an imagination that is boundless enough to conjure an impossible epidemic without losing sight of the exigencies of actual life, achieving that rare blend of magic and reality in which the fantastical allows us to see our own world more clearly, from a perspective that brings out details we might not have otherwise considered.

Plus, there's a happy ending, and not a cheesy happy ending, but an uplifting one that is wholly earned. Blindness expanded my own vision of humanity, and of fiction's potential. Just saying all this makes me want to sit down and read it again.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.