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Spring 2013

Reflections on Blindly

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Claudio Magris

Every text is wiser than its author, who is not always the one best qualified to speak of it, let alone interpret it. Perhaps he can only tell how and why it came about.

The first, vague notion came to me in 1988. I was in Antwerp to launch a translation of Danube, and had seen some ship’s figureheads, female figureheads. I was struck by their open, dilated gaze, directed at the beyond as if perceiving calamities invisible to others. At that moment, in that Flemish square, the idea came to me to write something about those figureheads, even though I was uncertain as to what I wanted from them. I followed various lines of research: I went to the Scilly Isles, where for centuries the sea had carried those figures to the shore from shipwrecks; I collected stories, legends, and so on. I am, in general, obsessed with exactitude, because I consider that reality, human reality in particular, is more original than invention. Life is original, said Svevo, and Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I believe also that every existence deserves the same respect as the great ones of history receive, and also the same philology (a word that etymologically contains love). This exactitude, which is born of love and respect for reality, the imaginative allure of its creations and an ethical sense of respect for whomsoever, also becomes, on the imaginative plane, a grotesque, maniacal dilation which contributes to the meaning of the world’s delirium. When I write a book it is as if I were making a mosaic; each individual tessera corresponds to a piece of objective reality, to a real existence or a real story, but the figure these tesserae compose is totally imaginary.

I had begun to write a book on the figureheads—unsuccessfully, but it nevertheless served me as a quarry of material to be reworked in the novel. There the figurehead becomes an ambiguous symbol: a female figure set on the storm-ridden prow, as if to be the first to receive the buffets of life and history; an image of femininity outraged and culpably ruined by the protagonist in my novel; the face (faces) of his love story, passionate but at the same time guilt-ridden.

But far more pervasive was my years-old interest in the incredible story of Goli Otok, Bald Island. Soon after the Second World War, when the moment of revenge had arrived for what Fascist Italy had inflicted upon the Slav peoples, some three hundred thousand Italians, having lost everything, left Istria and Fiume, Rjieka—by then part of Yugoslavia—for Italy, the West. At the same time, from Monfalcone, a small town near Trieste, two thousand Italian workers—militant communists, many of whom had experienced the Fascist jails, the lagers, and the Spanish Civil War—voluntarily left Italy for Yugoslavia, there to contribute, inspired by their faith in it, to the construction of communism in the nearest communist country: two intersecting counter-exoduses. But in 1948 Tito broke with Stalin, whereby these revolutionaries became, in Tito’s eyes, potentially dangerous Stalinist agents, while they regarded him as a traitor. They were deported to the beautiful, terrible islets of the Upper Adriatic, Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur (St. Gregory), where they were subjected, as in the gulags and the lagers, to every kind of persecution. This they heroically and foolishly resisted in the name of Stalin, who was for them the symbol of justice.

They lived in those hells ignored by all: Italy took no interest in what was happening on its eastern borders; Yugoslavia kept quiet about this infamy; the Soviet Union spread every sort of lie about Tito’s Yugoslavia but said nothing about its gulags, since it had many more of its own; and the British and the Americans, reluctant to weaken Tito, their precious anti-Soviet pawn, cared little for the misery of a mere few thousand people. When, years later, the survivors returned to Italy, they were harassed by the Italian police as dangerous communists arriving from the East. The Italian Communist Party also opposed them as embarrassing witnesses to the Stalinist politics it had embraced years earlier and now wished to forget.

This story moved me profoundly, partly because its protagonists always found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, but mainly because although they fought for a cause—Stalinism—they did so with a magnificent capacity for sacrificing their own individual destiny for a universal cause, for the good of humanity. Such capacity constitutes an invaluable moral legacy which we ought to accept and make the most of, even if we do not follow the flag for which they fought and even if they are guilty of having sacrificed others to their idea—as, in my novel, the passionate love story and the culpable sacrifice of the beloved woman shows. The protagonist of my novel, the narrating “I,” an obviously invented figure, is precisely one of those men who passed through the storms of history to end up on Goli Otok. As his name—Salvatore Cippico?Cipiko? Cipico—suggests, he belongs to that composite Italo-Slav world on the eastern borders of Italy.

However, the book is not simply the story of Salvatore Cippico?Cipiko-Cipico, deported to Goli Otok. It is also the story of Jorgen Jorgensen, the king-convict, with whom Salvatore often identifies, indeed confuses himself, to the point where he alternately raves, hopes, fears that he is the same person, his double, his clone. Jorgen undertakes the same odyssey as those convicts who, between the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, were transported from England to Australia and Tasmania to become their first population, apart from the aborigines. Jorgen is an incredible character: a Dane in the service of England, a sailor who had crossed the seven seas, the founder of the capital of Tasmania, Hobart Town. Many years later he would there be sentenced to hard labor for life, as if Romulus had ended up as a Roman slave.

I set myself on the track of this Jorgensen, going all over in search of him—Denmark, England, Tasmania, the places where he had lived. I needed to behold the sea that he had beheld at the other end of the world; I needed to find out what color that sea had, beside which he had lived and died.

His life is full of such incredible incidents as—to give but one example—the three weeks in which he was proclaimed, by way of a bizarre revolution, either King or Protector of Iceland: an extraordinary destiny, and in my book (for his, too, is a narrating voice, or rather a voice which the protagonist, in his delirium, makes his own) it blends with that of the deportee to Goli Otok. Likewise Jorgen’s voyage to the Antipodes becomes the emigrants’ voyage to Australia after the Second World War; the Australian penitentiaries interweave with the lagers and the gulags; and the “black war,” which totally wiped out the Tasmanian aborigines, is one with the horrors of the twentieth century.

When the last Tasmanian, a woman, Trucanini, died, she begged them not to exhibit her skeleton in a museum like the skeleton of an extinct animal. Yet her skeleton was exhibited—until 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. Also, many children were sent to these terrible penitentiaries. I have seen in Port Arthur the so called Puer Point, a high rock from which a lot of these children, tormented beyond endurance, hurled themselves into the sea.

The grotesque revolution of Jorgen in Reykjavik—a mixture of generosity, foolish and comic performance, fraudulent and dramatic adventure, noble political utopia and parody—gave me the opportunity, like a distorting yet revealing mirror, to portray both the greatness of revolution and its misery.

I tried to write Jorgen’s story, to the point where it almost naturally intertwined and fused with Salvatore’s. However, before that could happen I needed to deal with what was at the root of the novel’s structure, namely the myth of the Argonauts, the Golden Fleece. It is one of the fundamental archetypes of our imagination, a primordial, archaic myth. At the same time it is a huge modern—and post-modern—marketing operation, one of the most brilliant promotional ploys ever created around a commercial enterprise. But more than anything it is the story of a terrible clash of civilizations: the Greek Jason on the one hand, and the Eastern barbarians, the Colchians, on the other. This theme of the East, ever feared, scorned, and rejected, recurs throughout most of my books—the mysterious East, and long identified with communism, too. In Europe almost every country has its East to repel.

Jason means “healer,” he who heals, who saves, like Salvatore. He carries into those nebulous lands the greatest civilization ever to have existed, the Greek, but he also comes to rob, plunder, and deceive. The story of Jason and Medea is the story of this clash, of the tragic nexus between the bringing of civilization and its destruction—a theme that also fascinated Pasolini.

Then there is that incredible episode in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. The Argonauts, in the voyage to Colchis, stop over at an island inhabited by the Doliones, a friendly people with whom they spend a marvelous evening of fraternal feasting. Then they set off again, but during the night a storm sends them back to the same island. They are unaware of this, however, thinking that they have been tossed onto a hostile shore, while the Doliones in turn think that they are being attacked. In the dead of night these two brotherly peoples slaughter each other. In my book this episode becomes a striking symbol of those fratricidal conflicts that have also blighted revolutionary movements, in particular the clash between communists and anarchists in the Spanish Civil War.

The Argonaut myth also opens up immense oceanic horizons, boundless seas that in turn encroach upon those crossed by Jorgen and Salvatore. The sea—the great love in my life—is the landscape of epic, of adventure, and of vanity; perhaps it is the real protagonist of Blindly. The story of Medea, too, provides a profound mythical substructure for the story of the protagonist’s love for a woman—many women, variations and almost at times serializations of a single woman—and of her life, passionately loved and culpably sacrificed, outraged and lost.

The Golden Fleece, in its turn, was always in the wrong hands, illicit property, fruit of the violence of one who had acquired it criminally, having stolen it from another who in turn had stolen it from someone else. The Fleece becomes the symbol, variously, of the red flag, banner of glorious battles, rag used to strangle, bedspread on which to make love, and so on.

Blindly is all a monologue, a delirious monologue wherein other voices flow, interweave, override. The speaker is the protagonist, Salvatore Cippico, returned from Goli Otok after a life of struggle and disillusion which has taken him from his native Tasmania (where I imagine he was born, son of emigrants originally from the eastern borders of Italy), to Fascist Italy, the war in Spain, the Resistance, Dachau, Goli Otok, the last voyage to Australia, and the final, definitive return—all through the most desperate adventures. Salvatore is a divided self. The voices that speak are perhaps all his, even those of the doctor and of the multifarious tormentors that have interrogated him throughout his life. He ideally represents the fugitives, the partisans, the illegals, the rebels hidden under so many false names that they sometimes lose their own identity.

I had begun to write a traditional, linear novel. But it didn’t work, even though in part it merged (albeit totally transformed) into the final version. It couldn’t work because in a narrative the “how,” namely the style, the structure, the writing, must correspond—better, must identify—with the “what,” with the event and with its meaning or non meaning. One cannot write with rational order the story of a tragic disorder; the disorder and the tragedy are in the things and in the words.

I was sucked into a creative and critical whirlpool, that great Conradian sea which is the modern, contemporary novel, whose structure derives from the breaking up, the alterating, of the relation between time and history. The labyrinthine search for meaning makes it impossible to find it. The essential point concerns the relationship between the contemporary novel and history, be-tween writing history and writing stories, between narrating reality and inventing it. The problematic relationship between literature and history is very important in the American novel: to give but few examples, “The History as Novel—The Novel as History” in Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, or “History as Fiction, Fiction as History” in Michelle Cliff’s Abeng. All this produces a precarious sense of identity and experience.

The destruction of the linear concept of time, and the eclipse of a central meaning capable of bestowing unity and rationality upon events both individual and collective, have made a violent assault on the way storytelling relates to the meaning of history. A genuine novel of our time cannot recount history if it is not like the nightmare of which Stephen Dedalus spoke, or like the grotesquely contorted series of events, disjointed and irrational, in Grass’s The Tin Drum, fragments scattered in a vortex.

While writing Blindly, I was grappling, on the one hand, with that form of truth which the novel can search for only through distortion, and also with that other form of truth which—in the ethical-political context, for example —can be reached only by trusting that very reason upon which the surging breakers of the epic seem to have dissipated.

For the nineteenth-century novel the action of an individual was, at bottom, integrated into history. When the nineteenth-century writer invented stories, he could employ the style of his political writing. The writing and the style of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is none too different from that of his polemic against Napoleon III. Kafka, by contrast, would not have been able to write his novels or tales in the style of everyday communication or political statements of social solidarity. A great Italian writer, Raffaele La Capria, wrote that the great masterpieces of the twentieth-century novel are “failed masterpieces” because they take upon themselves, in their structure, the existential and historical truth, the coherent necessity of the failure in the attempt to represent the totality of life, the sense of living. When I was working on Blindly I continually found myself reckoning with disintegration, shipwreck.

The novel has a wide-ranging variety of tones and rhythms, from engulfing maelstrom to the precision of historical and geographical details. Salvatore talks, speaking into the recorder and then erasing. Every so often the doctor insinuates his questions, and perhaps also his answers, into the recording. The voice remains the same, but at times Salvatore fears it may no longer be his own. He chatters away into the computer, to others or possibly to himself. He is without doubt psychically disturbed, having failed to cope with all that has befallen him. He is, in a clinical sense too, a divided self. The voices that speak are perhaps all his, even those of the doctor and the multifarious tormentors that have interrogated him throughout his life. But his is also a choral voice, since each one of us is always a chorus. Whatever of importance happens to us is never solely ours, solely private. To fall in love, to grow, to age, to fall sick, to possess a faith or to lose it, to die—these are experiences which an individual lives in a manner uniquely his own but also in the name of all, standing for all. In a certain sense he loses his own name, like the Unknown Soldier, to take on potentially the name of everyone.

Certainly the experience that befalls Salvatore is overwhelming. It breaks him, drives him to delirium. To speak of Blindly one must speak of a maelstrom, of language as a whirlpool choking the voice, dredging and sucking up life and history. This violent whirlpool of words is like a serpent that suffocates the self, even if it is one’s own self. It is his story, our story, which is sometimes too much for us. We fail to cope, so life appears intolerable to us, as if we had the world on our shoulders, grinding us down. On the other hand, in his self-multiplication there is also anguish at being canceled by the universal depersonalization of the post-modern, by a serialization that reproduces and in some way annuls every identity. The anxiety of his speech betrays his fear of being the fictive creation of a videogame, which one touch of a key can either expunge or multiply to infinity. All this he strenuously seeks to resist.

At times, out of too much love of life, the protagonist reaches a certain point where he can do no more; he flees from himself. He feels he must tell in order to preserve memory, which not only constitutes our identity but is also a duty towards the victims, who are all too often subjected to the further violence of being forgotten. But this memory is not the past: rather it is always present. It is the feeling that everything that has value is present, as when we say that Shakespeare is a poet, not that he was. So the narrative is in the present tense, since everything is recounted the moment the protagonist relives it and incorporates it, that very instant, into his life. Every so often this weight of crushing memory is intolerable, and so there is the occasionally violent desire in the protagonist to wipe out memory, to press the button that erases the tape recording, to burn and expunge even his own self—an obsession with fleeing the lager of life, which at the same time is so much loved.

Blindly is a book that combines those two types of writing that Ernesto Sàbato called diurnal and nocturnal. In the former a writer, even when he is inventing, expresses a world with which he is in agreement. He declares his own values, his mode of being. In the latter the writer has to reckon with something that suddenly emerges from within himself and which he did not know he possessed: feelings, disquieting drives (even horrible truths, so says Sàbato) that astound us, appall us, confront us with a face we did not know we had. It is writing that tells us what we could be, what we fear and hope to be, what by sheer chance we have not been. Such writing places us face to face with the Medusa of life, who at that moment cannot be sent to the hairdresser’s to get her serpent head done and so be rendered presentable. It is the writing wherein the writer’s Double speaks, and though the writer may well prefer his Double to speak of different things, he cannot do otherwise than pass him the microphone.

In the book, the great hopes of the twentieth century, the great freedoms it achieved, retain all of their real, passionate value, yet are inextricably interwoven with the century’s negations, its horrors. Hence the writing cannot but be a blending of day and night. The title Blindly, which embodies this mixture, derives from an anecdote about Nelson. It is said that in the battle against the Danish fleet in front of Copenhagen, when the Danish raised the white flag, he continued to bombard them for almost two hours, later excusing himself by saying that he had not seen the white flag because he had put the telescope to his blind eye. In the book this becomes the symbol of doing evil blindly, of not seeing the evil one does, of not wanting to see it; of living blindly, of going forward blindly, of loving blindly...

But here I stop, because I should not like to resemble my protagonist too closely, he who goes on and on, supplementing his discourse as in a maelstrom with the words of others—words which he recovers, remembers, perhaps invents, perhaps falsifies.

Claudio Magris is the author of Danube, Microcosms, Blindly, and other books. He served as a senator in the Italian Senate from 1994 to 1996, and he writes regularly for Corriere della Sera and other European newpapers. A professor of modern German literature, he lives and teaches in Trieste.

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