Friday, March 23, 2007

Reader's Diary #245- Jose Saramago: Blindness (up to p. 50)

For some weird reason, I have accidentally made this Nobel month at the Book Mine Set. Without even intending it to happen this way, I'm currently reading books by three Nobel prize winners; Jose Saramago's Blindness, Pablo Neruda's The Captain's Verses, and Maurice Maeterlinck's The Blue Bird. Plus, I just finished Harold Pinter's The Room.

Check out the list of past winners. Asides from the one's mentioned above, I've also read Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, William Golding, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot, and George Bernard Shaw. Which have you read? And does winning the Nobel prize increase your likelihood of reading works by a particular author? While I don't intentionally search them out, they are probably a little easier to come across in libraries, so I guess it does influence my reading a little.

It's hard to stay balanced after you hear of a book's accolades. Usually it causes people to either go on a fault-finding mission or claim brilliance in the periods and exclamation points. As much as I'd like to think I'm above such bias, Blindness is making me think otherwise. So far I'm absolutely flabbergasted by how great it is. Yes, I'm even impressed with the punctuation!

To tell you the plot details up to this point would not do the book justice: A city is suddenly plagued by a contagious form of blindness and the unfortunate victims are quarantined in an abandoned mental hospital. Sounds like a cheap medical thriller, doesn't it?

But it feels like so much more. The way it's told is fantastic. From a plural, third person point of view it almost comes across as a case study, perhaps even as a cold scientific voice at times:

"As for us, we should like to think that if the blind man..."

Yet it has the converse effect of making me care more about the victims. It seems to force my emotions more in their favour.

I remember reading Angela's Ashes a while back and appreciating Frank McCourt's rejection of quotation marks. An odd thing really, but I think it got a couple of points across to me: 1. quotation marks are for chumps 2. for all the time we've spent setting down "the rules", they are more fun when knocked over. Saramago takes it further. Not only are conversations missing quotation marks, but the dialogue is merely separated by commas. While characters (who remain nameless except for consistent descriptors, such as "the doctor's wife") talk back and forth with one another, there isn't even a line break. For example:

"...I'm a doctor, an ophthalmologist, You must be the the doctor I consulted
yesterday, I recognise your voice, Yes, and who are you, I've been suffering
from conjunctivitis and I assume it hasn't cleared up..."
I had to use ellipses because an entire conversation often takes up to an entire page! And again, Saramago pulls it off. In a book about blindness, it makes the conversation more realistic, it is reduced to nothing but the voices. The imagination it takes to follow along (which is surprisingly easy) pulled me into the story even more.

So far, I am VERY impressed.


Allison said...

I think I've read two books this year, I feel like a failure. I've decided I'm going to finish 'Timequake' this weekend though.

Prize winners really don't play into how I choose I book. I may give it a second look, but I'll always go for the underdog.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Quotation marks are for chumps! So much so that I felt compelled to leave them off that statement.

You know that conversation really does work exceedingly well, it feels organic and in real time. I might have to read this book.

Of the other Nobel winners, I've read 11, but I can't say that the fact of their winning influences my decision, except as you say, they are more forefront at the library.

John Mutford said...

Allison, I agree about the underdog appeal. That was a part of the reason I was so glad that Heather O'Neill's "Lullabies For Little Criminals" won this year's Canada Reads. (It's also part of my platform to find myself on the show!)

Barbara, I find it strange to recommend a book I haven't finished yet, but I've got a sneaking suspicion that I will be pushing this one on you!

Dr J said...

You posed an interesting question, so had to go through that Nobel list to see how many I had read, beyond just a short story here or a poem there. My total was 27, which I can't decide if it's a good score or a bad one, considering my so-called "training" as a onetime literature student. *shrug*

Frankly, I'm still amazed Graham Greene never made the Nobel list.

John Mutford said...

I'd say 27's a pretty respectable number. I've never read any Graham Greene(embarrassingly, until I just wikipedia'd him I only knew the actor) so I don't know if you're being sarcastic or not. If not, which would you recommend?

Dr J said...

Actually, when Greene the writer died in 91, Greene the actor's wife (apparently) kept receiving condolence notes from friends and family. Poor woman had no idea, because her husband was off and unreachable on location somewhere.

Greene the novelist had a more profound influence than most people, academic or general, realize, because he provides the substantial link between Joseph Conrad and Henry James at the beginning of the century to the John le Carre's and the Robertson Davies' of the late-century. A brilliantly economical writer (no fat on his prose), he always had strong stories to tell, which made him relatively popular in his lifetime. In fact, you probably know of some of his stuff via the movies, if not by fiction: The Third Man was his, as were The Quiet American, The End of the Affair and The Comedians.

GG was prolific, so it's hard to say where to start, because he covers many different moods. I always recommend the stories first and usually suggest from there; but if you're in for stark drama, start with The Power and The Glory or The Heart of the Matter. If you're in for some meaningful laughter, I recommend his lovely (and wonderfully short) Monsignor Quixote.

John Mutford said...

Dr. J, that story about (the actor) Greene's wife is pretty funny. Well, in a "it happened to people I don't know" sort of way.

Yes, I'll certainly be adding Greene to my list. For every person that compliments me on being well read, there are two others who expose my gaps. There are just so many books! Come to think of it, that's another reason I get so bitter when I've wasted my time on a book I didn't enjoy.