More frightening than Stephen King, as unrelenting as a bad dream, Josi Saramago's "Blindness" politely rubs our faces in apocalypse. Its detailed history of an unaccountable epidemic of "white blindness" that inundates the nameless inhabitants of a nameless country makes you fear for your own sight: Have the corners of the pages dimmed ever so slightly? Saramago won this year's Nobel Prize for literature, and at 76 his powers have not dimmed: This fable is so unsettling, so limitlessly allegorical -- the Holocaust, AIDS and Bosnia come to mind -- that it feels infinite. "The whole world is right here," one character tells another. Blindness merely amplifies everyone's fundamental helplessness and interdependence and makes plain the lies they tell themselves to get through the day. As a blind ophthalmologist puts it, his useless expertise an emblem of the surplus with which we all burden ourselves, "Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are."
In Saramago's view, that truth is what we cannot bear to see. Strip away the power of our eyes, "the windows to the soul" -- a metaphor with which the author teases us repeatedly -- and what's left, he suggests, is little more than ravenous beasts mauling their competitors in the fight for survival. "Evil ... as everyone knows, has always been the easiest thing to do." The reasoned calm with which Saramago depicts the unspeakable (as society collapses outside its walls, the main characters, the first to go blind, struggle for survival inside the asylum in which they have been quarantined) makes the reader long for mercy, for some release from the suffering. And even when that release comes, when the inmates escape the asylum to wander a world gone blind, it's hard to know what to make of it. Are we better off learning to live with our blindness or glorying in what little we can see? And when sight returns, what seems at first to be a happy ending may be anything but.
A metaphor like "white blindness" might easily seem forced or labored, but Saramago makes it live by focusing on the stubbornly literal; his account of a clump of newly blind people trying to find their way to food or to the bathroom provides some surprisingly gripping passages. While this epidemic has a clear symbolic burden, it's also a real and very inconvenient affliction. Saramago is familiar with this balancing act: he has an affinity for skepticism, and his curling, run-on sentences, some of them lasting several pages, have the dense eventfulness, but rarely the tilt into fantasy, of Gabriel Garcma Marquez's in "Autumn of the Patriarch." The result is a minute study of how effortlessly we can be divested of all that we call "humanity," how fear and selfishness conspire to let us do our worst. "God does not deserve to see," thinks the doctor at the book's lowest point, and Saramago's powerful achievement is to make his readers wonder: What have we wrought by choosing so selectively what we can bear to look in the face?