The plague years

Journals of the Plague Years: Narrative Disorientation in
Jose Saramago’s Blindness
Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying

How does an author convey the disorientation suffered by the victims of a plague of blindness?  He can’t tell it straight; it would be like observing a children’s game of blind man’s buff: comical, absurd, bodies bump into each other in the white light of their affliction.  To carry the reader into the fog of Blindness, Saramago ties on blindfolds, throws up stylistic obstacles to be tripped over, forces the reader to grope in the darkness for comprehension, and offers an eyewitness to interpret the experience.

Risky as they are, none of Saramago’s stylistic choices is haphazard.  The inciting incident falls on page 1, so the reader is immediately caught in the traffic jam forming around the first case, at ground zero of the plague.  There, the reader throws his lot in with the first blind man, weaving through the confusion of overlapping dialogue without punctuation:  who’s speaking? Where are we?  What’s happening? Like the blind man, the reader is “Abandoned in the middle of the road, feeling the ground shifting under his feet, he trie[s] to suppress the sense of panic that welled up inside him” (4).

There is no familiar shape to the narrative.  Long blocks of text form impenetrable walls.  The reader examines each line, each detail, like bumps of Braille, with his fingertips, looking for a way in, a way out; tries to determine who’s speaking in dialogue with few attributions, no body language, few full stops:

As she dressed the wound, she asked him, Where did you leave the car, and suddenly confronted him, But in your condition you couldn’t have driven the car, or you were already at home when it happened, No, it was on the street when I was stationary at a red light, some person brought me home, the car was left in the next street, Fine, let’s go down, wait at the door while I go to find it, where did you put the keys, I don’t know, he never game them back to me, Who’s he, The man who brought me home, it was a man, He must have left them somewhere, I’ll have a look round, It’s pointless searching … (Blindness, 10)

And on, for many more lines without a break.  Once the reader is trained in this kind of dialogue, it thunders along at a compelling pace, sweeping the reader into the narrative stream.  At the end of the first unnumbered chapter, the reader is rewarded with a one-line paragraph —  “That night the blind man dreamt that he was blind” (15) — chilling in its brevity, emphasized by its contrast to the pages of text so far.

As more characters are introduced they are identified, not by name, but by their roles: the thief, the doctor, the girl with dark glasses, the doctor’s wife.  Like the blind, the reader learns to recognize the sound of their voices in the void: distinct, individual, preoccupied with their own thoughts.  Towards the end of the novel, the character of the writer provides a rationale for Saramago’s choice:  “What is your name, Blind people do not need a name, I am my voice, nothing else matters” (290).

The stark, unadorned narrative throughout, particularly difficult to endure during the insanity of the internment, is not accidental.  During their meeting, the writer asks the doctor’s wife about the quarantine:

“Was it hard, Worse than that, How horrible, You are a writer, you have, as you said a moment ago, an obligation to know words, therefore you know that adjectives are of no use to us, if a person kills another, for example, it would be better to state this fact openly, directly, and to trust that the horror of the act, in itself, is so shocking that there is no need for us to say it was horrible. (292)

Good advice for any writer.

The doctor’s wife is essential to the narrative.

“Let’s be glad of our good fortune at still having a pair of seeing eyes with us here, the last pair left, if they are extinguished one day, I don’t even want to think about it, then the thread which links us to that human mankind would be broken, it will be as if we were to separate from each other in space, for ever, all equally blind” (305).

Without her to “see” for her cadre of survivors, there would be no escape or survival.  Likewise, without her to “see” for the reader, there would be no organising principle:  “And how can a society of blind people organise itself in order to survive, By organising itself, to organise oneself is, in a way, to begin to have eyes” (296).

The many narrative intrusions are worth examining:  what purpose do they serve?  The reader is trained to listen for this voice, external to the narrative, from the first paragraph, where it describes the zebra crossing:  “The people who were waiting began to cross the road, stepping on the white stripes painted on the black surface of the asphalt, there is nothing less like a zebra, however, that is what it is called” (1).  Sometimes banal, more often profound — the reader wrestles with these intrusions:  are they the author’s voice reflecting, seeking meaning from the experience?  Or, is this voice meant to be a stand-in for “we” the readers, or “we” the blind?

If things continue like this, we’ll end up once more reaching the conclusion that even in the worst misfortunes it is possible to find enough good to be able to bear the aforesaid misfortunes with patience, which, applied to the present situation, means that contrary to the first disquieting predictions, the concentration of food supplies into a single entity for apportioning and distribution, had its positive aspects, after all, however much certain idealists might protest that they would have preferred to go on struggling for life by their own means, even if their stubbornness meant going hungry. (151)

First personal plural; usually present tense; sometimes with a conspiratorial, knowing tone; frequently punctuated — they stand out like a beacon in the dark:

Words are like that, they deceive, they pile up, it seems they do not know where to go, and, suddenly, because of two or three or four that suddenly come out, simple in themselves, a personal pronoun, an adverb, a verb, an adjective, we have the excitement of seeing them coming irresistibly to the surface through the skin and the eyes and upsetting the composure of our feelings, sometimes the nerves that cannot bear it any longer, they put up with a great deal, they put up with everything, it was as if they were wearing armour, we might say. (281)

This royal we, the god-as-author of these misfortunes, requires us to ask why these people are so mysteriously afflicted, so mysteriously cured.  What lesson can we take away, other than: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy uses several devices, similar to Saramago’s, to provide distance and disorientation in his plague world.  The characters of the man and the boy, Everyman stand-ins for the reader on this post-apocalyptic journey, are not named.

Again, the dialogue is neither enclosed in quotation marks, nor attributed.  Mercifully, the speakers are frequently allowed individual paragraphs and, where they’re not, the voices of the man and the boy are distinct; there’s no confusion between them.

Like Saramago’s, the horrors of McCarthy’s world are conveyed without adornment.  In perhaps the most nightmarish of many lingering images:

He could see part of a stone wall.  Clay floor.  An old mattress darkly stained.  He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light.  Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands.  On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt.  The smell was hideous. (McCarthy, 110)

Clearly, “the horror of the act, in itself, is so shocking that there is no need for us to say it was horrible” (Saramago, 292).  Likewise, the miraculous storehouse in the bunker is conveyed through the pure accumulated detail of inventory:  “Crate upon crate of canned goods.  Tomatoes, peaches, beans, apricots.  Canned hams.  Corned beef.  Hundreds of gallons of water in ten gallon plastic jerry jugs” (McCarthy, 129.)  No adjectives required.

While most of Stewart O’Nan’s narrative choices in A Prayer for the Dying are more traditional than Saramago’s and McCarthy’s — perhaps to convey a known reality and a human past (i.e., full, familiar punctuation and attributions; characters named; locations identified) — narrative disorientation is achieved through his use of second person point of view.  The dissociative character, Jacob Hansen, cannot endure the horrors of his plague town, so soon after his experiences in the Civil War. Nor could the reader, if forced to look dead on at Hansen’s dead and dying.

Nonetheless, as in Saramago and McCarthy, the spare narrative through this damaged narrator’s point of view enhances the horror:

Their hands are just stumps, their faces missing.  The children are obvious, the rest of them impossible.  You don’t bother counting.  It looks like they were running for the woods.  Didn’t get far at all.  (O’Nan, 193).

In that hellish scene, mentioned above in The Road, one wonders what desperate evil could account for such actions.  Hansen’s most stunning revelation (almost a mirror image to McCarthy’s scene) builds on Hansen’s throw-away memories of the Norwegian with whom he found himself encumbered during the war.  Line by spare line, almost non sequiturs in the context of Hansen’s memories, the reader acquires a sense of Hansen’s character and wartime nightmares:

You had to feed the little Norwegian; he couldn’t walk from hunger.  His teeth fell out in clumps, his hair took a reddish tint.  At night you stood guard with an empty rifle, bayonet fixed ….In the morning, the dying accused you of having food. (O’Nan, 75)

You could hear … the little Norwegian beside you coughing.  He’d been weak since the beginning, riddled with consumption, and you kept him alive, fed him that horse piece by filthy piece until you stripped it to the hooves.  (119)

Gradually, these details offer the reader sympathetic glimpses of the saintly Hansen, nursing an injured comrade.

After the little Norwegian died you could still hear him pleading for something to eat.  It only made you hungrier, and you cursed him.  Roll over and hold Marta to you. (145)

You remember tending to the little Norwegian, taking great care with him.  They all thought he was your friend, that the two of you were inseparable, the way you looked after him, so devoted.  You wouldn’t let anyone touch him.  (194)

And then, POW! the revelation that these details have been a kind of sleight-of-hand, the shadow side of Hansen is exposed; The Road’s monsters walk among us:

You buttoned his sleeves so they didn’t see the marks on his arms where you stripped the meat off when they were asleep.  You said a prayer after you buried him, made another promise to God, instantly became a different man.  But did you really change?  You thought you had.  Now you don’t know. (194)

Such stunning misdirection!  The reader blinks, rereads, reconsiders his own complicity, having come so far on this journey into madness, identified as “you”:  “A paraiah, if just some small part of him, wants to belong, to be, in the end, forgiven” (195).

Works Cited

McCarthy, Cormac.  The Road. New York: Vintage International, 2006.

O’Nan, Stewart.  A Prayer for the Dying.  New York:  Henry Holt, 1999.

Saramago, Jose.  Blindness.  New York:  Harvest/Harcourt: 1995.

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