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.
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To have watched from one of your patios
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from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
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