Imagine, just for a moment, what would happen if you lost the ability to read these words, not because of impaired literacy, but because your very sense of sight vanished.

Whatever hardships you imagined are likely to pale in comparison to the horrors experienced by the citizens of a sightless society in Jose Saramago’s allegorical novel “Blindness,” in which an epidemic sweeps through an unnamed country, leaving its victims able to see nothing but a milky white.

Intriguingly and effectively, this outbreak of “white sickness” is never explained. One afternoon, a man is sitting in his car waiting for a traffic light to turn to green. By the time it does, it’s irrelevant to the man, who’s now suddenly, mysteriously blind. Another man offers to drive him to the hospital, drops him off, and steals his car, only to quickly become blind himself. The eye doctor who treats the man loses his own vision, of course, as do countless others. Curiously, the one person whose sight is spared is the doctor’s wife (which, like the epidemic itself, is, thankfully, never explained), when the government drags him off to a militarily enforced quarantine, she feigns her own blindness in order to join him.

Philosophically indebted to Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” Saramago’s work skillfully forces the reader to seriously ponder both the extreme human vice and virtue that such a catastrophe could easily unleash. As more people lose their sight, they also lose their morality, and the desperate struggle for survival results in robberies, rapes, and murders over food. It’s not long before stray dogs are prowling the streets and feeding on corpses.

But while the world at large descends into chaos and despair, a loose “family” of people, led by the blind doctor and his wife, manage their own journey with a quiet dignity, compassion and heroism that suggests humanity’s more appealing qualities might not only endure but prevail. “Might” is the operative word, however; as the full ramifications of the epidemic become inescapably, crushingly evident, civilization itself seems to be hanging on by a thread.

This is not, to put it mildly, light reading. What it is, however, is an exhilarating literary experience which works on multiple levels, including that of an adventure and a social commentary. Saramago so vividly paints both a picture of a disintegrating society and the faith and courage necessary to survive in it even (or especially) the most disturbing of passages retain a powerful pull.

Although certain stylistic elements – no formal character names and scant punctuation, for instance – might initially be a little confusing, this idiosyncratic approach ultimately makes the work more immediate, even urgent. You feel less like you’re reading a book and more like you’re witnessing events unfold.

So, again, imagine for a moment what would happen if you lost the ability to read these words. Then be grateful you haven’t lost that ability; after all, among other things, you’ll need it to read “Blindness.”

Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book reviewer.

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