Writing the Present, Rewriting the Plague, José Saramago’s

Ensaio sobre a Cegueira

and Mario Bellatin’s Salón de belleza

Estela J. Vieira

Yale University

The epidemic is a recurring theme with a long tradition in literary history of which Albert Camus’ The Plague is probably twentieth century’s best known example. It is a fundamental point of reference for any analysis of this literary motif in contemporary writing. Camus’ narrator chronicles the spread of a plague that attacks the city of Oran and the community’s resistance against this evil. The topos in this 1948 text suggests the imminent struggles and destruction brought about by Nazism. World wars and military invasions make important contexts for fictional representations of plagues. Yet the most important underlying subtext seems to be the human condition and the novel’s strongest argument an ethical one. Highlighting the work’s allegoric representation or emphasizing only its didactic quality can, however, diminish its aesthetic achievement. The novel’s critical reception confirms that Camus’ artistic project is as significant as its ethical undertaking. There is no inherent contradiction between a text’s facility to make moral judgments and aesthetic contributions.

Perhaps not so surprisingly these thematic and critical questions are most relevant to contemporary writing and literary criticism. A recent conference at Yale University on the future of the aesthetic discussed how this parallels that of ethics. Contemporary writing returns to this literary motif and reveals similar ethical anxieties of the present context, though with new literary and conceptual forms. The more exceptional writing that adopts the plague metaphor cannot be reduced to its allegoric or ideological inclinations. These important rewritings also parallel developments in critical assessment. This essay will read two novels published in the nineties, José Saramago’s Ensaio sobre a Cegueira and the Mexican-Peruvian Mario Bellatin’s Salón de belleza, as contemporary rewritings of the plague as a topos. A brief introduction to the use of the motif in the plots of the novels discloses new forms and functions of the epidemic. The narrative perspective and structure of both texts reassess ethical and critical questions. In Saramago’s work these reconstruct a visual discourse, while in Bellatin’s, they elaborate alternative critical conceptions of the temporal and the allegoric. To a certain extent the novels discuss the literal and literary present.

In Saramago’s Ensaio sobre a Cegueira a white blindness begins suddenly to beset the hectic dwellers of an unspecified city. The first individuals contaminated are quarantined in a vacant and neglected mental asylum. The epidemic grows and the state intensifies its violent control as it slowly loses its ability to contain the spread of the blindness. A devastating fire marks an important turning point in the text. The surviving blind prisoners are free from the repressive internal structures that had formed among the blind. Liberated also from the external force of guards keeping watch over the asylum from high towers reminiscent of concentration camps. They return to find a city struggling to survive amidst absolute blindness, political anarchy, and social disintegration. In the end, just like in Oran, the people begin to cheer and rejoice as their eyesight returns.

Saramago’s text parallels Camus’ in that it traces and elaborates the different consequential phases that develop with the spread of an epidemic. The novel’s latter half narrates a scene completely absorbed by the plague. It pictures a world gone blind for an undetermined but momentary period of time. The difference between an inexplicable sudden white blindness from Camus’ traditional bubonic plague is significant. In fact, The Plague’s narrator, Rieux, claims that one would have to be "stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague" (115). Ensaio sobre a Cegueira suggests we are blinded by the white light of reason. Saramago calls the blindness in his 1998 Nobel Lecture "cegueira de razão." He writes this story "para recordar a quem o viesse a ler que usamos perversamente a razão quando humilhamos a vida, que a dignidade do ser humano é todos os dias insultada pelos poderosos do nosso mundo, que a mentira universal tomou o lugar das verdades plurais, que o homem deixou de respeitar-se a si mesmo quando perdeu o respeito que devia ao seu semelhante."

The spread of the blindness suggests then that today’s ethical bankruptcy is the novel’s compelling subtext. Still, Saramago’s blindness plague allows him like other outstanding authors, to develop and enhance the aesthetic and formal functions of this literary motif. In García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad representations of invading epidemics that hit Macondo’s inhabitants vary from the insomnia plague, to the banana company frenzy, to two year long rainfalls. Besides inviting historical and political interpretations these turning points in García Márquez’s text illustrate the creative process involved in the formation and transformation of a collective consciousness. Because Saramago’s plague is one of blindness it permits for more than a traditional interpretation of human disintegration. It also advocates a discourse on a collective configuration and growing confidence of the visual.

The plague in Mario Bellatin’s Salón de belleza is very different, apparently a lot more realistic, but constructed with equal consistency. This short novel of brief and quick sentences recreates the testimony in the first person of a transvestite who has turned his beauty salon into a place where young men suffering from an unnamed chronic disease come together to die. It is not uncalled for to assume that AIDS is what is slowly driving these adolescents to their deathbeds. The growing panic of the spread of the AIDS epidemic has influenced writing often burdened with a political agenda. Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic which documents public reaction to the spread of the epidemic, stands out perhaps because of the clear reading that the text demonstrates of Camus’ work in structure and in tone. Bellatin’s work successfully shows similar symptoms and reactions to the spread of this epidemic while underscoring the greater process of lives, communities, and individuals slowly disintegrating. The evil has no cure, death is imminent, and the ethical scarcely belongs to the vocabulary of the text. The tone and structure maintain a dialogue with the representation of the aesthetic and the interpretation of the allegorical that make this recent work crucial for the questions it raises concerning ethical and critical constructions.

On one level the text answers directly to the central focus of the recent Yale conference already mentioned, which was the future of the aesthetic. Is it not telling us after all about what has happened to what used to be a beauty salon? The narrator is very dedicated to his "creación del salón de belleza" (46). He wants it to be "un lugar verdaderamente diferente" (46) and works diligently so as not to do anything "carente por completo de la originalidad que desde el primer momento le quise imprimir al salón de belleza" (69). Paralleling this artistic like process that aspires to create an impression of the beautiful, is the life breeding project reflected in the narrator’s futile attempts to keep in his salon large aquariums full of colorful exotic fish. The author’s ironic play with the aesthetic, as with allegory, is a form of resisting past literature while proposing alternatives in writing that are possibly more relevant to contemporary urban societies.

Saramago’s text is equally pertinent and its crucial construction is that of the narrative perspective. Because the narrator speaks in the first person plural the reader seems to be textualized and tied intimately to the struggling of telling and comprehending the horror. Still, far more decisive for the reader is the perspective of one character in particular, the doctor’s wife, who is the only one to never go blind.If in Camus, Rieux the doctor, was the witness narrator, it is now the doctor’s wife whose eyewitness and endurance reveal to the readers the struggle and the text. Women appear as the foremost participants of the community and resisters to the reality. There is a parallel between struggling through the process of degeneration and that of emancipation. More compelling, however, is that we have access to the reading through the woman’s eyesight. Her ability to see gives the fiction another dimension. The role of the reader and of the seeing character is analogous and the most critical. It represents an aesthetic and ethical point of view. The woman and the reader are interchangeable and so are perhaps the visual and the literary. They both exist in and outside of the fiction. They witness the calamity, violence, and injustices, which coincidentally do not look very different from our current events, that everyone else around them can not see or does not read.

When the novel comes to an end we assume that we no longer need the woman’s ability to see. If she were to go blind the fiction would come to a close. But, the interdependency between character and reader extends to that of reality and fiction. The text ends with the woman looking out her apartment window: "Olhou para baixo, para a rua coberta de lixo, para as pessoas que gritavam e cantavam. Depois levantou a cabeça para o céu e viu-o todo branco, Chegou a minha vez, pensou. O medo súbito fê-la baixar os olhos. A cidade ainda ali estava" (310). The ending suggests that the woman’s eyesight, the city, the hope, the reader’s participation, perhaps literature’s possibilities will survive the horror. There is also a peculiar moment in the text when an author, who even though blind is still writing, crosses paths with the narrative. This move reminiscent of Albert Hitchcock perhaps further links the text’s strategy to the visual. Saramago redesigns a traditional literary motif and with signifying forms unique to language and to the novel creates a dialogue between literature and a visually aesthetic reality and ethically blind world.

Rationally and order appear to have reached extremes in Salón de belleza, as well. Both phases of the beauty salon in life and in death are marked by "torturas de rigor" (33). Once popular the salon establishes a rigid rhythm and rules that are followed "en forma religiosa" (48). The women customers should not even consider making an appointment at the last minute. The semi-mortuary that the salon becomes is run with a similar inflexibility. Women are not allowed, guests are accepted only when their bodies become unrecognizable, contributions are limited to clothes, money, and sweets, there is only a daily ration of a cup of soup, and any form of curing or praying is absolutely prohibited. If you try to escape you can expect a serious "paliza" (33). The language is very exact and restricting. The words designate numbers, shapes, sizes, and colors. The tone of the text is quick and authoritative. This apparent order and control contradict the decomposing, incomprehensible, and completely disordered background that is the story the words calculate. This technique critical of power structures and rationality achieves a new form of the literary construction of the dictatorial figure in Boom literature. The narrator admits that before converting his salon into a mortuary his life was in disarray and empty. Now absorbed by the disease and obsessed by the running of his new establishment he has regulated his life, given up cross-dressing and an apparently promiscuous lifestyle, and begins to reflect, think about his solitude, and consider the consequences of his actions. This repenting is insufficient and too late.

The text is marked clearly by this repetition of order and by a process of reversible transformations and transgressions. These sustain the structure of Bellatin’s text and propose alternative critical viewpoints to concepts of temporality and interpretation. There are two parts to the short novel and the end of the first half is also, like Saramago’s text, marked by a turning point when the neighborhood attempts to attack and burn down the salon. Even though there is an evolution, it is clearly not linear nor even progressive. The text opens with the narrator’s nostalgic claim to a past of apparent harmonic beauty. In the end, close to death, the narrator speaks of a future possibility of returning the salon back to its original state. The past and the future remain then only as distant impossibilities and crumble into a hypothetical or simultaneous present. It seems impossible to separate the past from the present and at the same time the present reveals the uncertainty or lack of a future. The only temporal construction is one between a before and after.

The fish world parallels supposedly the reality on the other side of the glass. Survival of the fittest seems to be the philosophy that reigns here, but the strongest effect of this allegoric representation is the underlying criticism of the displacement of values and emotions, and perhaps even critical interpretation. Without including an obvious ethical subtext the text criticizes this absence. The first person narrator insists constantly on turning our attention away from the diseased men to his private fish collection. This does not work, for some readers anyway. Beds lined up in rows full of dying young men can give the grisly impression that they are coming back from a world war. This juxtaposition purposely address the reading of allegories and metaphors. Within this text then the allegory is overturned through its own representation. Susan Sontag’s objective in Illness as Metaphor is also to liberate metaphors of disease that link the terminally ill body with intellectual and moral disintegration. Bellatin’s text attempts to reassess interpretative constructions of the ethical and critical. We have to start from the beginning and wonder what is the right ethical choice in this world and what makes a better representation.

An important element of these new rewritings then seems to be the ironic redesigning of this literary motif. No matter how dreadful and serious these worlds are, there is an important sarcastic tone that leaves room for possibilities and emotions. Black humor, however, does not undermine the gravity of the events nor the strength of the techniques. It enriches the dialogue these narratives have with the epidemic as a motif while recognizing the restrictions of a rewriting. This humor is also important considering today’s limits to the element of shock. Conscious and maybe inherently critical of an apparent impossibility to shock today’s reader, they opt for making the readers laugh and feel self-conscious. The nature of the events in both texts are gruesomely comical. One need only to take Saramago’s text as an example and imagine hundreds of blind people tripping over one another, cursing out inanimate objects, and taking short Charley Chaplin like steps. he main character here is a collective represented in the group whose odyssey through the blindness plague the text narrates. This group manages at one point to dig only a very shallow grave for their fellow dead and in one case: "Fosse o morto gordo e ter-lhe-ia ficado de fora a barriga" (86). After the strenuous struggle back to the city, exhausted, famished, and half-naked, as the doctor shares his noteworthy advice and ideas with the others, the narrator tells us "o médico não está menos cego que os outros, a prova é que nem deu por que a mulher vinha nua da cintura para cima, foi ela quem lhe pediu o casaco para se tapar, os outros cegos olharam na sua direcção, mas era tarde de mais, tivessem olhado antes" (228).

Another characteristic that parallels both works is the process of dehumanization. People are compared to animals and reduced to their primal desires and natural instincts.The foremost lesson of Camus’ plague, that of humility, is still then very important today. Perhaps less central is the idea of an overwhelming and inexplicable cosmic evil. Instead, the extreme to which human action and will have reached, is what seems to frustrate understanding. Here Bellatin’s epigraph, a quote by Yasunari Kawabata, is very significant "Cualquier clase de inhumanidad se convierte, con el tiempo, en humana."

These novels recur to a traditional literary motif that functions to read, write, and interact with present ethical and critical issues. This literature still speaks significantly about moral impoverishment without abandoning literary innovation. By comparing the insistence of the epidemic in literature, it would seem that patterns and events repeat themselves or perhaps that returning to eschatological questions is characteristic of writing at the end of a millennium. These apocalyptic like realities are not only in fiction: the present moment is representative of a time that threatens with wars and the spread of new epidemics, and that identifies the ethical and the aesthetic as in a state of crisis. Different authors illustrate and represent this literary motif within their rewriting distinctively, dialoguing and confronting their perception of reality accordingly. These two very different versions of worlds, styles, and languages, nonetheless, have similar effects. Both Ensaio sobre a Cegueira and Salón de belleza are telling of our contemporary cultural and critical milieu. These works force us to reassess ethical values and to some extent our criteria for critical evaluation.

Works Cited

Bellatin, Mario. Salón de belleza. México: Tusquets, 1999.

Camus, Albert. The Plague. New York: Vintage, 1991.

García Márquez, Gabriel. Cien años de soledad. Madrid: Cátedra, 1995.

Kellman, Steven G. The Plague Fiction and Resistance. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Reis, Carlos. Diálogos com José Saramago. Lisboa: Caminho, 1998.

Saramago, José. Blindness. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. London: Harvill, 1997.

---. "De como a personagem foi mestre e o autor seu aprendiz." The Nobel Foundation, 1998. <http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1998/lecture-p.html.

---. Ensaio sobre a Cegueira. Lisboa: Caminho, 1995.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played on: politics, people, and the AIDS epidemic. New York: St. Martin's 1987.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.

Stegagno Picchio, Luciana. José Saramago. Istantanee per un ritratto. Firenze: Passigli, 2000.