I've just finished reading the novel "Blindness" by Portugese author Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The plot device – a nationwide infectious blindness - is an interesting concept, and was the reason I selected the book; it sounded similar to some interesting sci-fi novels I read years ago.
Without reading the book, one can guess that any narration on this topic is bound to be bleak, and this one certainly is. Saramago pulls no punches in postulating a total breakdown of society, with a special emphasis on the failure of sanitary systems. The dystopic future he envisions is equal to those presented by Cormac McCarthy in The Road or Blood Meridian.
BUT - despite the interesting plot (and the Nobel credentials), I'm not going to blog this review in the category of recommended books. My reason for not doing so is the difficulty I encountered in reading the book - a difficulty based solely on the author's choice of formatting and sentence structure. Here is the opening sentence of the final chapter:
The next day, while still in bed, the doctor’s wife said to her husband, We have little food left, we’ll have to go out again, I thought that today I would go back to the underground food store at the supermarket, the one I went to on the first day, if nobody else has found it, we can get supplies for a week or two, I’m coming with you and we’ll ask one or two of the others to come along as well, I’d rather go with you alone, it’s easier, and there is less danger of getting lost, How long will you be able to carry the burden of six helpless people, I’ll manage as long as I can, but you are quite right, I’m beginning to get exhausted, sometimes I even wish I were blind as well, to be the same as the others, to have no more obligations than they have, We’ve got used to depending on you, If you weren’t there, it would be like being struck with a second blindness, thanks to your eyes we are a little less blind, I’ll carry on as long as I can, I can’t promise you more than that, One day, when we realize that we can no longer do anything good and useful we ought to have the courage simply to leave this world, as he said, Who said that, The fortunate man we met yesterday, I am sure that he wouldn’t say that today, there is nothing like real hope to change one’s opinions, He has that all right, long may it last, In your voice there is a tone which makes me think you are upset, Upset, why, As if something had been taken away from you, Are you referring to what happened to the girl when we were at that terrible place, Yes, Remember it was she who wanted to have sex with me, Memory is deceiving you, you wanted her, Are you sure, I was not blind, Well, I would have sworn that, You would only perjure yourself, Strange how memory can deceive us, In this case it is easy to see, something that is offered to us is more ours than something we had to conquer, But she didn’t ever approach me again, and I never approached her, If you wanted to, you could find each other’s memories, that’s what memory is for, You are jealous, No, I’m not jealous, I was not even jealous on that occasion, I felt sorry for her and for you, and also for myself because I could not help you, How are we fixed for water, Badly.Wiki describes Saramago's style is described as featuring "long sentences, at times more than a page long. He uses periods sparingly, choosing instead a loose flow of clauses joined by commas. Many of his paragraphs extend for pages without pausing for dialog, which Saramago chooses not to delimit by quotation marks..."
I prefer to be able to run my eye down a page and dwell on (or skim) the conversations or descriptions, which paragraph formatting permits. In the absence of paragraphs or quotation marks it’s almost necessary to read every word; whether or not that’s the author’s intention, I find it a bit of a nuisance.
I don't mind the run-on sentence per se. Cormac McCarthy uses paragraph-size sentences, but they are powerful and coherent. Try reading the two paragraphs by McCarthy in this post, and compare the experience to the reading of Saramago's contrivance above.
In terms of sheer length of sentence, those by Saramago and McCarthy pale in comparison to some of the creations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As I've noted previously, the final chapter of The Autumn of the Patriarch is a sentence 53 pages long (I estimated 17,500 words), 40X as long as the above, difficult to read but coherent and often quite lyrical. Marquez stacks conditional phrases one after another, presents long detailed descriptions, or transcribes stream-of-consiciousness thoughts. With Saramago it’s often (as above) conversation spliced together with commas, with speaker changes denoted by the initial caps.
Addendum: reposted 6/18/10 in recognition of the death of Jose Saramago.