Monday 18 June 2012

Guest post: MG Harris' favourite post-apocalypes novel, Blindness by Jose Saramago

Today on Demention we have a guest post by MG HARRIS. She is the author of the internationally best-selling series of teen thrillers, THE JOSHUA FILES. She was born in Mexico City but lived most of her life in Manchester, England. As a teenager, trips to the Mayan ruins gave her the seed of the idea for what would later become the JOSHUA FILES series. MG has recently dabbled with self-publishing, with her first novel for older readers; THE DESCENDANT - a technothriller.

“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.” Jose Saramago, Blindness

Once in a while, the book you receive as a Christmas gift and begin to read in the New Year sets an impossibly high standard for anything else that year. In 2010 that book, for me, was Blindness by the Nobel-prize-winning Portuguese author, Jose Saramago.

Before writing this post, I thought about reading the book again. But I couldn’t. Not just because it’s such an uncomfortable experience that you think twice about enduring it again, but because I’d already anticipated that particular power of this novel, and passed it on to a friend.

The story is simple. An unexplained epidemic of white blindness sweeps through the population of a city. Within months, all semblance of civilised society has been torn away. We follow the fate of a small group who are led by the sole person to remain immune. As the contagion of blindness spreads, so does viciousness and cruelty.
As Sally Nicholls’s All Fall Down shows, the Black Death left enough people alive to worry about looking after the sick. This ‘blindness’ leaves no-one untouched – apart from the ‘doctor’s wife’. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed person isn’t king; they’d better hide, or become a slave to a horde of ruthless blind people. In short order, it comes down to every man and woman for themselves.

Saramago has a particular style of long, unbroken sentences and paragraphs which takes some getting used to. However, this story quickly gets right under the skin of the first protagonist. Within a few pages the reader is led through the building horror of a man gripped by a sudden, inexplicable blindness. I remember squirming in sympathy, wanting to put the book down but somehow, unable to.
From then on, it is pretty much unrelenting grimness as we follow a small group of characters as they fall blind, and are interned in a disused mental asylum, by a state that runs out of sympathy and compassion in about five minutes.

Panic spreads. There appears to be no cure, no means of prevention. The first victims are abandoned inside the asylum. But Saramago hasn’t chosen a simple contagion like Ebola, or a zombie-plague with a swift if grisly death. For the blind of this story there is no easy death. The only escape is by starvation, neglect or murder.

The author leaves just enough hope left alive to torture all the characters – and the reader – by dangling the slim possibility that somewhere in this new hell, enough compassion and cooperation will survive.

Blindness, unlike most genre or YA post-apocalypse novels, doesn’t use the cataclysm as a backdrop for adventure or romance. Saramago’s unrelenting focus is on the breakdown of society, as a way of showcasing the precious, tenuous nature of all that has been achieved by the development of ‘civilisation’. We depend on others for everything. Human society is fundamentally cooperative – and if that cooperation has to be coerced, it will be.

It’s like Day of the Triffids stripped to the bone, without the fun of being chased by marauding flesh-eating plants.

Why would you read something like this? Admittedly, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Blindness is an unflinching look at a hopeless situation.

Once in a while though, I think we need to dare ourselves to face, via literature, an imagined, quotidian horror. The best writers avoid sentimentality in these tales. The bleakness of the events needs little decoration; this is not for the faint-hearted.

Maybe that’s why I can stand to read Blindness more easily than some of the others. The scenario is easy to imagine yet seems very unlikely. Plagues, war and famine – we’ve seen those played out in reality. They could easily visit again.

The appalling horror of closing your eyes one day and then opening them to a world of pure white, seems improbable. Yet, believably horrible. One minute you can see. The next minute, things go white. And in that blink of the eye, you are reduced to dependency on the kindness of strangers.

But as Saramago shows, under pressure, kindness would become rare.

A novel like Blindness can serve authors of YA fiction as a helpful guide to the limits of the reading experience we provide for young people. Post-apocalyptic fiction is popular with young readers, who like to imagine how they would survive in similar circumstances. How they might succeed against the odds; what might be the limits of their mettle.

Blindness goes further into the darkness than any YA book ever could or should. When relief comes, it’s as arbitrary as the arrival of the blindness. Humanity proves utterly bereft of solutions. Only an act of God can reprieve these characters from their man-made hell.

This is post-apocalyptic fiction served raw. Taste at your own risk. But if you read anything better for 12 months afterwards, I’ll be impressed.

I’ve known from the beginning that ultimately Josh Garcia, the teenage hero of THE JOSHUA FILES, would have to face the very cataclysm that he so dreads – the (debatably) prophesied end of civilisation at the end of 2012.
Which is why the final book of the series: APOCALYPSE MOON takes Josh forward in time – for readers to enjoy the vicarious chill of a glimpse into post-apocalyptic society…
The movie (starring Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Gael Garcia Bernal) is nothing like as powerful as the book, but well worth watching all the same.

Here’s the trailer:

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