Peter John McLean

Jose Saramago, Blindness, dialogue in the narrative, its influence on the flow of the book, and what I think of it (Reviews)

I recently picked up Blindness by Jose Saramago, because I assumed it would be disturbing, because I loved the movie, because why not. It just sat in a pile of books, under We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, and a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, and Geek Love, and of course Mr. Penumbra’s Inexhaustible Deus ex Machina Character Grab Bag. So I finally started reading it and its amazing. Possibly the best book I’ve ever read.

There are a lot of things that Saramago does to make his books unique and brilliant, but only one that I care about right now and that is his dialogue. It is carefully crafted into the narrative text to keep from breaking up the rhythm of the story. This, when unprepared for it, seems wildly unconventional, even gimmicky maybe. It isn’t. Here’s an example from the beginning of the book:

And what about the car, asked someone. Another voice replied, The key is in the ignition, drive the car on to the pavement. No need, intervened a third voice, I’ll take charge of the car and accompany this man home. There were murmurs of approval. The blind man felt himself being taken by the arm, Come, come with me, the same voice was saying to him.

It takes about two seconds to acclimate to his style of writing, he capitalizes the first letter of a new character’s dialogue, which quickly makes it clear that two (or more) people are conversing (or conversating, as one of my high school teachers once said) (no lie).

The most notable result of Saramago’s claustrophobic narrative style is that the prose feels smoother than most. I’ve spent a lot of time writing with dialogue in the narrative, because I like the smoother and more rhythmic feel that it gives to writing, but I’ve never done it as thoroughly as Saramago. Writing dialogue has always been a real challenge for me and, blatantly stealing from masters like Murakami, I’ve found it easiest to sneak dialogue into the narrative in little bits and pieces instead of breaking up a big chunk of a story into dialogue. In fact, after reading Saramago I’m pretty confident I’ve used quotes for the last time.

Lately I have been writing a book about rats, which is a full length novel that I’m slowly chipping away at when I have the time. I’m applying a moderate version of Saramago’s narrative dialogue, separating all characters by sentences so that it is a little less confusing; I’m also repeatedly clarifying who said the dialogue to keep confusion minimal. I like applying techniques that improve the readability of writing, provided it isn’t gimmicky. I think that Saramago’s approach is great, it eases the writing and makes for storytelling that is much closer to the real human experience. In fact, I would argue that stereotypical dialogue, which is characterized by its ugly use of quotation marks and line breaks, is closer to theatrics, whereas Saramago’s style is closer to the oral tradition and storytelling in general.

So there is that.

If you haven’t read the Peter John McLean original about donating plasma yet…well, you should.