A few pages into Claudio Magris’s Blindly, the reader begins to ask the same question posed by the book’s jacket: “Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly?” Who indeed. At times the narrator is Tore, an inmate in a mental health facility. Other times, the narration is handled by Jorgen Jorgenson, king of Iceland, adventurer, and participant in the colonization of Australia and exploration of Tasmania. And Dachau is thrown in, because, why not? Yeah, it’s that kind of book.
What kind of book? Adjectives pop up one after another, all adequate, none quite right. Experimental and modern (and even postmodern) are labels that have been used to describe the book, and sure, they work well enough although these terms have been bandied about so often that I fear they will not suffice. I am tempted to call it a dream—a very troubling one where stories serve as both balm and irritant.
The book is dense, multi-layered, polyphonic, and quite a challenge, though not without rewards. Despite the setting, the novel is really staged in the dialogue of Tore Cippico (or, sometimes, Cippico-Čipiko), inmate, adventurer, and prisoner. The distinction between all three is thin:
It’s no accident that Dachau was established in 1898 as an institution for the feeble and mentally ill, idiots and cretinoids . . .
Asylum, gulag; Potato, potahto.
The adventures of Jorgenson and the experiences at Dachau all come back to the real center of the book: Goli Otok. The only certainty of the novel is that Tore was one of the unfortunate Italians who travelled across the Adriatic to Yugoslavia to help Tito build communism, only to be imprisoned on the tiny island of Goli Otok once Tito fell out with Stalin. The gulag years inform much of the, er, action, forever a point of reference for our not-at-all reliable narrator. When a paragraph begins detailing Jorgenson’s adventures, there’s more than a good chance it’ll end with Goli Otok, blending the very separate events into one hell of a dense puree. The success of the book is in Magris’s excellent prose and Anne Milano Appel’s translation. It is easy to see how this could all result in an infuriating mess, but, despite some frustrating stretches, Magris’s writing is seductive, keeping the reading going without ever making it easy.
To be sure, non-linear books that abandon convention are nothing new. In this sense, the odd structure of Blindly, which no review can ignore, is less interesting than the ideas which inevitably spring to mind even while wading through its more laborious passages, most notable being the manner in which victims appropriate other stories in order to make sense of their own. If Tore is a madman, he is indeed a “pazzo lucido,” a lucid madman, one capable of recognizing the absurdity of his own fate in context with the inhumanity of history. Could this be Magris commenting on the usefulness or fiction? The importance of history and culture? Perhaps, but like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, one gets the sense that Tore is condemned to retell his story for the remainder of his days. Unlike the Mariner, Tore’s story is composed of many others, liberated from the constraints of experience. When Tore describes what he has read about Jorgeson in a book, he can’t help but critique his autobiographer, stealing the story for himself, becoming the Icelandic king. The appropriation tells us, and him, more about himself than any concentration camp narrative could. This, in a sense, is the usefulness of stories. We are never free from fictions, our or anyone’s, especially when it relates to some very real tragedies.
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .