During the opening weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic many of us tuned in every evening to hear the latest statistics of the newly infected and the dead. As the figures mounted, this morbid need to know became a habit, fed by a convention of news reporting in which any tragedy, any disaster, is measured by the number of its casualties.
This televised event was interesting for a number of reasons, not least because we now know that the statistics released each day in the solemn pantomime enacted by the Health Secretary, flanked on one side by the ghoulish Chris Witty and on the other by whoever was unfortunate enough to be dragged along for the press pummelling, were inaccurate, as there was not — and is still not— any reliable way of measuring the fatalities: no one has produced an algorithm to accurately record which of the ‘excess deaths’ are related to COVID and which are not (the term ‘excess deaths’ refers to those deaths above the figure normally to be expected for a given period among a population). Figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics indicated that the coronavirus was to blame for more than two-thirds of the excess deaths in England and Wales, based on the number of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 reported on death certificates. According to an article in the New Scientist on 29 April, that left approximately a third of excess deaths unexplained. Some of these may have been coronavirus cases without obvious symptoms, or cases where doctors weren’t confident enough to mention COVID-19 on the death certificate, and these were left off the statistics for release by the government. A Financial Times analysis suggested that the virus had led to 45,000 deaths in the UK by 21st April, more than twice the official figure at that time, of 17,000. The statistics of death are confusing, and we may — and no doubt will — argue about them for a long time to come.
Now, imagine a world in which that situation is turned on its head, and no one, but no one, dies. Death takes a holiday. The statistics would then report on the absence of death. The round figure zero of those who have died, day after day. Such is the opening scenario of José Saramago’s Death At Intervals, his 2005 novel in which an epidemic of immortality strikes an unnamed country.
Among writers of the past fifty years, Saramago’s claim to fame might be made on the strength of his imaginative repertoire alone, but it is not only as a conjuror of ‘what if’ scenarios that he is remarkable: the writing too is masterful, with long twisting sentences and slyly perturbing dialogue, such as the conversation near the start of the novel, when, in this Catholic land, a cardinal berates the prime minister for a speech he has just made, in which he stated that the country will accept the challenge of the body’s immortality, if that is God’s will. The cardinal is profoundly shocked, since ‘without death, there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church.’ God, he suggests, would not commit the mortal sin of suicide. With deft irony, Saramago then has the cardinal suffer an acute attack of appendicitis: he is rushed to hospital for an emergency operation, and as he is sucked down the the tunnel of anaesthesia, ‘in the fleeting moment that precedes a total loss of consciousness . . . he thought that if, despite everything, he did die, that would mean, paradoxically, that he had vanquished death.’
In a recent article on reading Camus’ La Peste in the context of the current plague, Jacqueline Rose writes that the statistics of death hold a grip over us because such knowledge delivers the false impression of being on top of a situation that we know to be out of control, exacerbated in certain countries by government incompetence. ‘Counting,’ she writes, ‘is at once a scientific endeavour and a form of magical thinking’, and this may be so, but it does not help, since having the numbers in front of us does nothing to allay our sense of impotence. In Camus’s novel, we are reminded, certain people begin questioning the statistics, wondering if they are all, in fact, attributable to the plague. What, they ask, would be the normal rate of death for a city of this size? Questioning the accuracy of the official statistics in this way was precisely the route chosen by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in their attempts to make the pandemic ‘go away’.
However world leaders minimised the threat at the start of the outbreak — including Boris Johnson famously suggesting that the British people ‘take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures’ — the people themselves, faced with a lack of available information about Coronavirus, wanted to find out what might be coming to them. During those early weeks, sales of Camus’ novel rose exponentially, as did lesser works such as Stephen King’s The Stand and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness. Netflix recorded massive numbers watching movies such as Outbreak and, especially, Contagion, one of those top-heavy Hollywood flops that labours so frantically to crank up the tension that the viewer is beset by a fatigue as deadly as any virus long before the closing credits have started to roll.
Early on in the pandemic, I was invited by the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider to contribute to a joint global venture, involving mostly Latin American writers, but also a handful from Europe and other parts of the world, all of us sending in diary entries over the three months of March-May, 2020. The entries written in other languages were translated into Spanish and all of the pieces will eventually be published, in homage to Defoe, as a Journal of the Plague Year (Diario del año de la peste). The exercise of writing and sending my reports about the situation in Wales to Jorge, as well as the general obsession with plague and contagion that was rife at the time — but which already seems to be receding, no doubt prematurely — caused me to re-visit a couple of other works about contagion, written by authors other than Camus.
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Contagion was a recurring theme in José Saramago’s oeuvre. Ten years before Death At Intervals, he published Blindness — which was later made into a well-crafted and underrated Hollywood film, directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Julianne Moore. Blindness is about an epidemic in which the entire population loses their sight. It is a truly terrifying novel, which also offers a devastating exploration of human depravity and human resilience.
The first victim of the plague is struck blind while sitting behind the wheel of his car, waiting at traffic lights. The lights turn to green just as the man loses his sight, and begins shouting: ‘I am blind, I am blind.’ Amid the furious blasting of horns, a few pedestrians come to lend assistance. One of these offers to drive him home, and after helping the blind man into his flat, steals his car. The contagion is underway: the car thief becomes infected, as does the ophthalmologist the first man visits with his wife the next day. Overnight, the doctor, and everyone who was in his waiting room when the first man appeared, turns blind. There is no pathology to the blindness; no lesions, no signs of ocular infection. The eyes of the blind appear normal. The only person not affected by blindness is the doctor’s wife, but when this first group of infected cases are rounded up and escorted to an empty mental hospital on the outskirts of the city, to be kept in quarantine, she feigns blindness so as not to be separated from her husband. This act of selflessness proves crucial, both to the well-being of the small group that becomes the focus of Saramago’s story, but also to our understanding of the disease as the symptom of a deeper affliction, a blindness embedded within the wider society. No explanation of the blindness is offered at this stage but, this being a novel by Saramago, we might infer the loss of a coherent moral compass, the absence of all direction not dictated by material greed. The epidemic, which spreads through proximity to an infected person, becomes known as ‘the white evil.’
Sequestered in the cavernous hospital, the small group of blind struggle to make sense of their new environment. No one in the novel is named, only described as they are initially introduced: the first blind man, the thief, the doctor, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the man with the eye patch. In the hospital, the inmates receive food, which is delivered by the soldiers who guard them, but they risk being shot if they venture too near to the gate, since the soldiers are terrified of becoming as blind as their charges. Inevitably, the numbers of infected grow, and the hospital fills up. The new arrivals tell of catastrophe and social breakdown; of aeroplanes and buses crashing, of all government collapsing as the country’s leaders succumb to blindness.
Among the newcomers are a group of men for whom incarceration provides the opportunity for personal gain through the exploitation of others, a familiar practice across human history, and the starting point, we might reflect, of all expansionist and colonial regimes. (In the The Walking Dead, before it jumped the shark, the oppressive micro-empire founded by Negan reflects the same impulse towards explicitly gendered domination and abusive control). The men arm themselves — one has smuggled in a pistol, and the others take apart beds and furniture to provide iron rods — and impose a regime of subjugation, or slavery by any other name. They confiscate the daily food deliveries, for which they demand payment from the other inmates, first through the handing over of jewellery and money, and later through the supply of sexual favours by the women of the other wards. During a night of sexual violence, one of the women in the first ward is killed, and the one sighted person in the hospital, the doctor’s wife, takes a decision that will change the course of all their lives. She also reveals that she can see, a fact that has already been surmised by the sharper members of her little troupe.
Saramago’s trademark narrative style, embedding dialogue within the main body of the paragraph, superimposing multiple voices amid descriptive and reflective passages, takes some getting used to, but is remarkably well suited to the kind of story he chooses to tell. There are numerous occasions in which things taken for granted by those who can see unravel when attempted by blind men and women. The chaos incited by greed (or ‘blind self-interest’), the brutal conflict over food, the squalor of the latrines occasioned by the inability of the blind to clean themselves, all of these are described mercilessly, as Saramago sketches a society gone to hell, the corridors of the hospital crowded with bodies crashing into one another, or else crawling along the floor amid the rising tide of filth, fingers feeling for the walls.
When a fire breaks out, the surviving blind escape into a world which is now utterly sunk into ruin and desperation. Led by the doctor’s wife, the group wander through the city, in a fashion reminiscent of those World War One film clips, in which the victims of a poison gas attack shuffle forward, each with his hands on the shoulder of the one in front. Finding refuge in an empty shop, the doctor’s wife leaves the others behind and goes in search of food. Most of the stores have been looted, but in the underground storeroom of one supermarket, she stocks up on chorizo sausage, black bread and water. Driven by hunger, she takes a few bites of the sausage. In the frantic passage that follows, she starts back through the supermarket, three shopping bags slung over each arm, and the blind, though they cannot see her, smell the goods she is carrying, ‘and in no time a blind man was shouting Who’s eating sausage around here’. The doctor’s wife is mauled by the grasping arms of the blind, and she ‘broke into flight, colliding, jostling, knocking people over, with a devil-may-care attitude that was wholly reprehensible, for this is not the way to treat blind people who have more than enough reason to be unhappy’, and is pursued breathless and stumbling out into the street, out into the pouring rain, where the scent of sausage now attracts a pack of feral dogs, who, however, soon disband (the streets, after all, provide enough cadavers to keep them going) save one, which licks her face, licks her tears away, and which she befriends after collapsing in rage and terror at the side of the road.
The human pack is subsequently joined by this ‘dog of tears’ in their trek across the city towards the doctor and his wife’s apartment, where they eventually settle, as an extended family of sorts, including the owner, the first man and his wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the old man with the eye patch, the boy with the squint, the litany of characters seemingly comprising all of humanity within the confines of the apartment. And it is their camaraderie and gentleness towards each other that redeems them, setting them apart from the desperate hordes of the blind who forage, fight and fornicate in the streets below.
Throughout the novel, there is an extraordinary awareness of language, and the way in which everyday speech is rooted within the visual. Sometimes this is done in such a way as to remind the reader how the normal order has been turned upside down; how things that have always been done a certain way must now be done differently. How familiar this is to us all now, in lockdown; perhaps most poignantly by the absence of touch or embrace, our inability to hug our loved ones — even, tragically, the impossibility, for many, of visiting their dying relatives in hospital. In Saramago’s novel, we are encouraged to reflect on the inversion of normality through those everyday sayings that take sight for granted: ‘Just imagine,’ says the girl with the dark glasses, stumbling on the staircase to her family apartment, on a return visit with the doctor’s wife, ‘stairs that I used to go up and down with my eyes closed.’ Then, the narration continues, segueing into the voice of an invisible commentator: ‘clichés are like that, they are insensitive to the thousand subtleties of meaning, this one for example, does not know the difference between closing one’s eyes and being blind.’ This sort of meta-commentary is not unusual in Saramago, who sometimes introduces an omniscient observer as an additional perspective to that offered by the doctor’s wife, whose vision, as the only sighted character, is otherwise the main point of view on offer. These subtle shifts of perspective are offered throughout, adding a kind of displacement, as though the reader is both inside the movement of the narrative and outside, looking in.
A shift in perspective is adopted again, when, shortly after arriving at her apartment, the doctor’s wife and the two other women in the group step out onto the balcony and wash away ‘the unbearable filth of the soul’ under the torrential rain in an act of ablution that, in less skilful hands, might appear too crassly symbolic, but here deftly captures and celebrates the miracle of their survival:
Perhaps in the building opposite, behind those closed windows some blind people, men, women, roused by the noise of the constant beating of the rain, with their head pressed against the cold window-panes covering with their breath on the glass the dullness of the night, remember the time when, like now, they last saw rain falling from the sky. They cannot imagine that there are moreover three naked women out there, as naked as when they came into the world, they seem to be mad, they must be mad, people in their right mind do not start washing on a balcony exposed to the view of the neighbourhood . . . my God how the rain is pouring down on them, how it trickles between their breasts, how it lingers and disappears into the darkness of the pubis, how it finally drenches and flows over the thighs, perhaps we have judged them wrongly, or perhaps we are unable to see this the most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city, a sheet of foam flows from the floor of the balcony, if only I could go with it, falling interminably, clean, purified, naked.
So much of what we say and do in the normal run of life comes under question when confronted by a turnaround in everyday circumstance. The cretinous appeals of Boris and his pals to come together with a ‘wartime spirit’ were brought into sharp perspective in the early days of the pandemic. Once, in mid-March, my wife visited our local Asda, in search of toilet rolls, to be confronted by row upon row of empty shelves. Ditto pasta and tinned tomatoes. At checkout, she commented in friendly fashion to the young man on the till, that it was a shame people took it upon themselves to ransack the place, rather than simply take sufficient for their needs. ‘It’s every man for himself, love,’ came the swift and hostile retort. So much for the spirit of the Blitz.
In subtle ways, Blindness challenges our preconceived notions about community and the individual. The underlying message of the novel, if it is not banal to speak in such terms, is one that suggests the obligations of the individual towards the wider society. Born to landless peasants, who were too poor to send him to grammar school, Saramago entered technical school at the age of twelve and worked for many years as a car mechanic. It was barely surprising, therefore, that he was for most of his adult life active within the Communist Party of Portugal. He remained unapologetic for the communist regimes of the twentieth century, claiming that, as an historical fact, the church’s history was more deplorable still, and that he was ‘hormonally’ committed to a communist ideology. How this seeps into Blindness is not difficult to see. The society that breeds the pandemic of sightlessness is steeped in greed and intolerance. In an interview from 2008, Saramago claimed: ‘I don’t see the veneer of civilisation, but society as it is. With hunger, war, exploitation, we’re already in hell. With the collective catastrophe of total blindness, everything surfaces — positive and negative. It’s a portrait of how we are.’ The crux is ‘who has the power and who doesn’t; who controls the food supply and exploits the rest.’ These sentiments recall those he uttered in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1998: ‘This same schizophrenic humanity that has the capacity to send instruments to a planet to study the composition of its rocks can with indifference note the deaths of millions of people from starvation. Going to Mars seems easier than going to visit one’s neighbour.’
The underlying belief in human goodness evident at the close of the book might appear at odds with the overtly pessimistic tone of much of the rest, but this paradox surely reflects the ambivalence present in the lives of ordinary people under duress. A similar ambivalence and accompanying unease provoked questions among many people during the COVID lockdown. How are we going to emerge from all this? Will we learn anything from the process? Will we begin to change our habits, be more respectful of the environment, and of each other? Speculation seems pointless, and the question of ‘how will we emerge from this’ brings to mind an enigmatic minor character in Blindness, a writer who has squatted the home of the first blind man and his wife, and who occupies himself by writing, in ball point pen, an account of all that he cannot yet see. He writes even though he cannot see what he has written, perhaps because ‘a writer manages to acquire in life the patience he needs to write.’ His parting words to the doctor’s wife, after showing her his work, are: ‘Don’t lose yourself, don’t let yourself be lost’, which, we are told, ‘were unexpected, enigmatic words that did not seem to fit the occasion.’
The redemptive power of love is a recurrent theme in Saramago’s work, and Blindness, in spite of everything, ends on a note of hope. The role of the female protagonist in leading the group to safety stands in marked contrast to the moral indigence of some of the male figures, especially during the novel’s bleaker moments, of which there are many. I would stop short of suggesting that she is meant to personify saintly self-sacrifice, but she certainly rises above the petty concerns that preoccupy most of her blind companions. When her husband sleeps with the girl with the dark glasses, she readily forgives them both; in contrast, she responds to the outrages committed against the women in the hospital with swift and deadly vengeance. Certainly, the love and tenderness the individuals in the group feel for each other provide a release from the relentless misery into which they have fallen, but it is a release based on the scraps of humanity the group is able to muster, thanks, in large respect, to the doctor’s wife ability to see. Does this suggest a sort of messianic role for her? Does she exemplify what Christians refers to as Grace? I am not sure, and it would be strange if it were so, at least in the work of an atheist such as Saramago; but her own words perhaps serve best to provide an answer, when, having regained his sight, she responds to her husband, the doctor’s, question: ‘Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.’
This essay first appeared in Wales Arts Review on 14 August under the title of ‘Contagious Realities’. Part Two, in which I consider Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera will follow.