When epidemic begins, the government tries to contain it by interring all those who are struck blind and all those suspected of contamination (Does this begin to sound Orwellian? It's meant to.) in an abandoned mental assylum. Although the prisoners -- erm, patients -- are assured that they will be cared for in some minimal ways, the soldiers guarding them are terrified of contracting the blindness; their sargent keeps making comments like, "when the beast dies, the poison dies with it," which do not contribute to an atmosphere of compassion; and, of course, as the blindness engulfs the entire country, things like radio stations, banks, and the power grid cease to function. The book's pace is slow and steady. Each turn in the plot is presented calmly, as the next step in a logical and inevitable progression of horrors. Pretty soon, we have a filthy and over-crowded hospital, no food, and starving blind people shooting guns and wielding clubs and setting things on fire.
I said that everyone goes blind, but that is only almost true. One woman, the wife of a doctor who is the first to be sent to the assylum, mysteriously keeps her sight. She lies about it in order that she may remain with her husband, and she keeps her sight a secret at the hospital, too, afraid of the dependence and potential jealousy of the other inmates. They do depend on her, though unknowlingly: she is constantly touching people to guide them or trying to engineer some fairness in the distribution of food rations or spying on the gang with the gun in the ward down the hall. A few sentences ago, I thought about saying that she "miraculously" retained her vision, but that is not the story Saramago has written. While her vision is a blessing for her husband and especially for the group of inmates who stay with her when they escape the assylum and wander the ruined city, it is in many ways a curse for her. Not only does she bear more responsibility for caring for her blind charges, but she is forced to witness the disintegration of her world. She must choose, too, whether to bear witness, whether to tell her companions the truth about why she throws up walking down the street (because she sees a gang of dogs tearing apart a human corpse) or a less horrific version (that the dogs were eating another dog).
To my list of favorite characters from literature, I must add the dog of tears, a mutt of unknown origins who arrives to comfort the woman who can see. He licks her face clean when she falls down in the street and sobs; he discretely buries the remains of the chicken he has stolen from a suspicious old lady whose good-will they require; he clears a space for the woman and the doctor to sit down on the floor of a church filled with blind refugees and also with one of the most vivid and haunting images in the book, one I will not describe here in the name of not spoiling the read. The dog of tears is loyal and kind and self-sufficient; the characters in this book who fret constantly about turning into animals could do worse than to be like him.
It is a cliche to call a novel "breath-taking", and although I did read parts of this book without breathing, one hand clapped over my mouth, it was not the novel that took my breath, making me gasp with easy suprises, as some do, rather it was I who was holding my breath in, afraid of what would happen if I dared to exhale before the end of each scene.