Four Classic Texts – Part One.
2022 Reading Challenge. AKA Hank Schwaeble made me do this.
Earlier this year, Hank Schwaeble, author of some of my all-time favourite horror thriller novels and short stories (Damnable, Diabolical, and American Nocturne), challenged his friends and colleagues to enrich themselves by reading four classic texts—outside our usual genres—over the next twelve months. I hesitated. Quite apart from the ‘future classics’ I read in order to blurb for author friends (around 30 annually), I’m also a manuscript assessor, literary judge, anthology curator, and guest editor for multiple projects, all of which amounts to a lot of reading. Plus, I like to keep up with my favourite writers (many) and works that appear on award lists as much as I can, as well as staying current in genres that I’m writing in, which, admittedly, is a lot. And there are my favourite classic texts, like Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Hugo's Germinal , books which I try to read regularly and am always surprised when they still resonate, albeit sometimes for different reasons. I imagine that is the very definition of a classic text—that they stand the test of time and speak to universal themes which have meaning for people across cultures and also across generations. But I do have a lot of reading to get through this year. Could I afford to take on four more books? And in genres I’m less excited about? I persuaded myself that there was no harm in checking out the list that Hank provided. After all, I’m as well-read as the next person, so there was a good chance I’d already read most of them...
Whoops. Not so.
Many of the titles were new to me—including some secondary works by authors of acclaim. So, partly because I was bitterly ashamed at having read so few on the list, and partly because I love to read, I selected four:
· Blindness by José Saramago
· The Bostonians by Henry James
· Waiting for Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
· Red Sorghum: A Novel of China by Mo Yan
I began by reading Blindness, a 1995 title by José Saramago. I selected the 2005 Vintage Books edition, since this was readily available as an e-book. The back cover copy reads:
No food, no water, no government, no obligation, no order.
A driver waiting at the traffic lights goes blind. An ophthalmologist tries to diagnose his distinctive white blindness but is affected before he can read the textbooks. It becomes a contagion, spreading throughout the city. Trying to stem the epidemic, the authorities herd the afflicted into a mental asylum where the wards are terrorised by blind thugs. And when fire destroys the asylum, the inmates burst forth and the last links with a supposedly civilised society are snapped.
This is not anarchy, this is blindness.
As the copy above implies, it’s a dystopia, so aligned with my reading tastes, which (as everyone knows) include speculative, horror, crime-noir…
Yes, I was cheating, but it was on the list...
Blindness is possibly best described as a blend of Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (only without the triffids) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. An excellent companion to Dave Jeffery’s contemporary A Quiet Apocalypse series (examining deafness), Blindness is an examination of the human condition, an allegory exploring the speed and manner with which civilised society degenerates and systems fail when everyone in the world—save one—is afflicted with an idiopathic white blindness. Those who succumb first are subjected to cruel and draconian quarantine practices, where sufferers must fend for themselves in sub-human conditions. Starved and demoralised, even worse are the horrors inflicted on them by other internees. And yet, despite the hardships, and the lengths that people take to survive, there remains an element of hope in the narrative, a sense that, despite experiencing or even perpetrating atrocities, people can retain a moral core, albeit adjusted for the circumstances.
Spoiler alert: Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending, which I felt was weak and unsatisfying, although maybe my reaction says more about me and my penchant for darkness than the author’s decision to end with an image of hope. The blindness, which affects everyone but the doctor’s wife, simply disappears as abruptly as it arrived, with no explanation given, suggesting Saramago’s intent was to examine impacts of the loss on individuals and society, rather than to suspend our disbelief. There is a sequel, apparently, which wasn’t planned when the book was written, so that second book may offer a more satisfactory resolution. (If it does, I won’t know as I’m unlikely to read it.)
There are no names in the kingdom of the blind: Saramago’s characters are referred to throughout as ‘the doctor’s wife’, ‘the first blind man and his wife’, ‘the old man with the black eye patch’, ‘the boy with the squint’, and ‘the dog of tears’. An unusual choice, and somewhat cumbersome, which you might expect would distance the reader, but for all that, I was drawn in. It was as if I were blind and had only these small markers to identify their voices. Cleverly done. I will snaffle that tidbit away in my writer toolkit.
Nevertheless, Blindness was not an easy read, and I say this not because of the subject matter, which is as dark and ugly as any horror text, but because I had to labour through it, every page hard going. More than once I was tempted to give up because, as with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Saramago eschews common editing and formatting principles. Sentences are overlong and meandering. There are no new lines announcing speeches, instead they run together one after the other, capitals inserted in the middle of sentences to denote a change in speaker. Each chapter is essentially a single block of text devoid of the white space which usually allows readers to take a breath. I may have seen two paragraph indents in the entire book, rejoicing when my eye swept past them with ease. Perhaps this device, too, was meant to obscure which character was speaking and create that illusion of blindness, or at least a lack of clarity, in the reader. However, this technique, in my view, was less successful. Saramago may have gotten away with deviating from convention—and he has, as he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature—but as a reader, I found the narrative heavy, confusing, and slow-going, and as an editor, I don’t recommend it.
Is it the best dystopia I’ve ever read? No.
Was it an easy read? No.
Did it offer thematic insights I hadn’t already gleaned from other texts? Not really, although I am a big reader of end-of-days tales, and if this was a reader’s first dystopian narrative, they might feel differently. The pandemic aspect was provocative, and even a little triggering, given our current global situation—an aspect which I feel made it a stronger read overall.
Would I read it a second time? Probably not.
Would I read something else by Saramago? Probably not.
Do I regret wasting my time on it? Bizarrely, no.
Sensitivity. Um, we don't use the term thug in 2022, Mr Saramago, as it has racist underpinnings. Intended to be cultureless, and therefore universal, the setting seems likely to be urban Portugal (food reference clues and also a church with Catholic religious symbols.)
Do I feel enriched? Enriched is a strong word. Maybe smug? Because that is one more title I can say I've read when those how-many-have-you-read Teachers' Pet reading lists come out.
For the next classic book on my 2022 Reading Challenge, please check back around July.