Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Booknote: Ensayo sobre la ceguera (12 Books, 12 Months Challenge, Book 1)

My review as posted to my GoodReads profile:

Ensayo Sobre la Ceguera (Spanish Edition)Ensayo Sobre la Ceguera by José Saramago

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is a book that people will either like or hate (or at least dislike). I don't hate it, but I do dislike it, which is why I gave it just one star in spite of the fairly smart premise. I am even willing to admit that I skimmed parts of it since this is one of those books that, once you get to a certain point, you can pretty much predict with accuracy what will happen in the end. For me, that detail came when it was revealed the doctor's wife had a pair of scissors shortly after the thugs in Room 3 take over the food. From that point, I knew a war would break out, and that she would end up killing at least one person (she kills more than one. I happen to think they more than deserved it, but more sensitive people can debate that elsewhere). That the asylum was burnt to the ground did not surprise me either. Given the poor and extreme conditions, it had to happen pretty much.

This was not an easy book to read, and it may well be the hardest one in my list for the "12 Books, 12 Months" challenge I recently began. I am glad I got it out of the way early. This is by no means a "light" book. It is very depressing; it gives a view of society at its worst, and it shows how easily society can degrade and fall apart. All it takes is some catastrophe or apocalyptic event, and all hell will break loose. If you remember events like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or just know some history of failed nations, you know that we are pretty much a step away from the hellish chaos. In the novel, compassion and kindness end on the losing end for most of the book as the doctor and his ward eventually have to use violence to get the food that was stolen from them by the Room 3 thugs. As much as it pains the doctor, it's either that or starve. While there is some credit, so to speak, given to good deeds and kindness at the end, overall, the message is you may well need to be ruthless even to do the right thing. If you already have a negative view of humanity, this book will only serve to affirm it.

Saramago's novel is also difficult due to its style. There are no number chapters. It uses long sentences in long paragraphs and lots of commas. Conversation lines are often not separated. Chapters are separated by blank spaces. Thus the book goes on without allowing much pause. This might work better on other books. Other Latin American authors I like, for instance, use the same or close to the same style, but their works are better. This is specially so when it comes to pacing. Saramago's novel is extremely slow in its pace, especially in the parts taking place in the asylum. While the blindness plague strikes suddenly (and ends just as suddenly), much of the time in the novel and the narrative slows down after the outbreak. In addition, characters are not named; they are identified by some trait or profession such as the Doctor, the Doctor's Wife, and the Woman with Dark Glasses. Once you get used to it, the technique of not using names works, but it can be a bit disorienting at first. On doing a little bit of reading about the author after finishing the novel, I learned that this nameless technique is very common in his books.

I've wanted to read a novel by Saramago for a while. For one, he is a Nobel literature laureate. However, now that my curiosity has been satisfied, I will probably not read another of his books any time soon. The book does have a smart premise, and it does raise some dark questions that may be uncomfortable to many, but it is not an easy nor flowing reading experience. Still, I am glad that I did try out one of his books. To paraphrase one of the library laws, this book is not really for this reader. But, and this is made clear by many positive reviews on GR, I am sure the book is for some other readers out there, and other readers are for this book.

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