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Who is the mysterious narrator of Blindly? Clearly a recluse and a fugitive, but what more of him can we discern? Baffled by the events of his own life, he muses, "When I write, and even now when I think back on it, I hear a kind of buzzing, blathered words that I can barely understand, gnats droning around a table lamp, that I have to continually swat away with my hand, so as not to lose the thread."
Claudio Magris, one of Europe's leading authors and cultural philosophers, offers as narrator of Blindly a madman. Yes, but a pazzo lucido, a lucid madman, a single narrative voice populated by various characters. He is Jorgen Jorgenson, the nineteenth-century adventurer who became king of Iceland but was condemned to forced labor in the Antipodes. He is also Comrade Cippico, a communist militant, imprisoned for years in Tito's gulag on the island Goli Otok. And he is the many partisans, prisoners, sailors, and stowaways who have encountered the perils of travel, war, and adventure. In a shifting choral monologue—part confession, part psychiatric session—a man remembers (invents, falsifies, hides, screams out) his life, a voyage into the nether regions of history, and in particular the twentieth century.
About the Author
Claudio Magris has been a professor of Germanic studies at the University of Trieste since 1978. He is the author of Danube, a best-selling novel now translated into more than twenty languages, and in 2001 he was awarded the Erasmus Prize. He has translated into Italian the works of such authors as Ibsen, Kleist, Schnitzler, Buchner, and Grillparzer. Anne Milano Appel is a professional translator. Her translation of Stefano Bortolussi's novel Head Above Water was the winner of the 2004 Northern California Book Award for Translation.
Read an Excerpt
By CLAUDIO MAGRIS
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2006 Claudio Magris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMY DEAR COGOI, to tell the truth I'm not so sure that no one is able to write a man's life as well as he can, even though I was the one who wrote that. Of course, that sentence has a question mark. In fact, if I remember correctlyso many years have passed, a century, the world around us was young, a verdant, dewy-eyed dawn, still it was already a prisonif I remember correctly, that question mark, hauling all the rest along with it, was the very first thing I actually wrote down. When Dr. Ross urged me to write those pages for the yearbook, I would have liked to send him a batch of pages with just a nice big question mark and nothing elseit would have been the honest thing to dobut I didn't want to be impolite toward him, kindly and benevolent as he was, unlike the others, and then too it wasn't a good idea to irritate someone who could oust you from a comfortable niche, like the editorial office of the penal colony almanac, and send you to that hellhole, Port Arthur, where if you sat down to rest for even just a second, worn out from the rocks and icy water, you'd feel the cat-o'-nine-tails on your back.
So I only wrote the first sentence in front of that question mark, rather than my entire life ... mine, his, whoever's. Life, our grammar teacher Pistorius used to sayaccompanying the Latin citations with calm, sonorous gestures in that room hung with red that darkened and faded away toward evening, childhood's embers glowing in the shadowslife is not a declaration or a statement but an interjection, a punctuation mark, a conjunction, at most an adverb. In any case, never one of the so-called principal parts of speech"Are you sure that's what he said?"Oh ... you're right, Doctor, it's possible that ... perhaps it wasn't he who used that expression, it must have been Miss Perich, subsequently Perini, the teacher in Fiume, but later on, much later.
Besides, that initial question can't be taken seriously since it implicitly contains the commonly known response, like a question in a sermon posed to the faithful in a rising tone. "Who so able to write a man's life as the living man himself?" No one, of course, you can almost hear the congregation murmur in response to the preacher. If there's one thing I've grown used to, it's rhetorical questions, ever since I wrote the sermons for Reverend Blunt, who paid me half a shilling apiece, in the prison in Newgate, while he played cards with the guards and waited for me to come and play too, that way he frequently got his half shilling backnothing strange about that, I was in there mainly because I had lost everything gambling.
But at least there, in that cell, as I wrote those bogus questions inside those grimy walls, it was I who formulated them, even though it was the Reverend who later trumpeted them from the pulpit, whereas elsewhere, everywhere, before and after, for years and years in saecula saeculorum, it was others who shouted them in my ears instead: "So then, that mayhem in Iceland was caused by you and you alone, just like that, for the sake of those godforsaken devils with their rickets and ringworm, no one helped you turn His Majesty's seas into a shambles, did they, so you fessed up without thinking that you were lined up there with others to listen to the speech of the new prison commander," down comes the cat-o'nine-tails, "so you don't recognize the face of that Communist, you never saw him before, and those flyers appeared in your pocket by some miracle," here come the kicks and blows, "so then you're not a spy, not a traitor intent on sabotage, pretending to be a comrade, the free socialist Yugoslavia of the workers, maybe you're an Italian Fascist pig who wants to recover Istria and Fiume," down goes your head in the shithole or scurry as fast as you can between the rows of convicts, forced to beat you as hard as they can, shouting "Tito Partija! Tito and the Party!" as you run bybut where are those shouts coming from, what an uproar, I can't hear a thing anymore, whose ear is this, deafened, stunned, out of order, it must have been a wallop and if someone packed it, someone certainly caught it, me or somebody else.
There, it's over, the roaring is subsiding. That too was a rhetorical question; it's my ear, this one here, seeing that you, Dr. Ulcigrai, are bending over the other one, the left one, when you ask me "So then, your real name is supposedly Jorgen and you say you wrote this," showing me that old tattered book that I found in that bookshop on Salamanca Place in Hobart Town. At least you don't raise your hand to me, on the contrary, you're very kind, you don't take offence even when I call you Cogoi, and you don't keep on asking me the same questions over and over again. If I don't answer, you let it go, but the fact remains that you asked me and it's pointless because you already know the truth, or think you know it, which is one and the same, and in any case you already know my answer, when I answer youotherwise you suggest it to me, you put the words in my mouth.
An unwavering, firm response, essentially; at times, I admit, a bit confused as to the details. But what can you expect with all this coming and going, with so many things that pile up, years and countries and oceans and prisons and faces and events and thoughts and more prisons, and slashed evening skies gushing blood, and injuries and escapes and defeats ... Life, so many lives, can't be held together. On top of it all, when you're worn out from relentless interrogations, you have even more trouble putting things in order, many times you don't recognize your own voice and your own heart. Why, every so often, do you make me repeat your questions, playing that tape backward and forward? Maybe it's to impress them on me more, I understand, it's true that I sometimes get confused, but that way I get even more confused, hearing your words spoken by my voice. In any case, the more you're questioned the less able you are to respondyou start contradicting yourself, they say, then they drive you even further into a corner, by hook or by crook, depending on their skill.
I don't exactly know what contradicting yourself means, but you can certainly fall into it, that's for sure. And then you disappear, soap shavings sucked up by eddies of water in a drainhere in the Southern Hemisphere the water in the bathtub whirls around the hole counter-clockwise, for us up there though it's the reverse, clockwise. It's a physical law, I read, they call it the Coriolis effectmarvellous symmetries of Nature, a quadrille in which one couple advances and the other retreats, both bow when it is their turn and the dance never misses a beat. One person dies, another is born, a line of infantry on a hill is mowed down by a barrage of artillery fire, other troops and flags gain the crest of the hill shortly afterwards, and a barrage mows them down in turn. "So then it all evens out ..." Yes, give and take, victory and defeat, the penal swimming hole of Goli Otok and ocean bathing later on those same magnificent beaches of the Adriatic island, communism that freed us from the Lager and put us in a Gulag where we held out in the name of Comrade Stalin, who meanwhile put our other comrades in the Gulags.
"Accounts even out, and although blood stains the ledgers, it doesn't erase the figures or the final zero, what the assets and liabilities add up to." If anyone can say that, it's me, having spent so many years in jail in this same city that I had founded years earlier, with its houses, its church and even its jail, at a time when there were only black swans and whales in this immense estuary of Derwent, where you can't tell where the river ends and where the sea begins, in this great void in which there is nothing until the nothingness of Antarctica and the South Polewhales that had never felt a harpoon plant itself in their backs, causing the blood to spurt high in the air like water spouting from their blowholes. The first whale was harpooned by me, Jorgen Jorgensen, King of Iceland and a convict, forced to build cities and jails, even my own jail, Romulus who ends up a slave in Rome. But all these whirlwinds that scatter the dust of the dead and of the living are of little importance. What is critical, Dr. Ulcigrai, is that I can answer your pleonastic questions accurately as far as the essentials go, because I know who I am, who I was, who we are.
What do you mean by that"I know better"You? Yes, I see, you're convinced of it. The entire truth is contained in that folder you keep in the file cabinetit wasn't difficult to remove it without anyone noticing, right under your nose. Child's play for someone who has spent his life being spied on, followed, written up and blacklisted, who's had files kept on him by the police, the Lager, the hospital, OVRA, the Civil Guard, the Gestapo, the UDBA, the penitentiary, the Mental Health Centre, and has had to make the documents vanish each time. Even if it means swallowing them; or in any case shredding them, before they discover you. The folder is back there now, taken and returned to its place without anyone noticing.Especially since none of you looks at those documents anymore, since you've become so modernized and all you have to do is press a key to know everything there is to know. In any case, the folder is in the file cabinet and in my head as well, even if it's you who claim to control and construe my head. Mental Health Centre of Barcola, summary of the clinical file of Cippicoalso Cipiko, CipikoSalvatore, admitted March 27, 1992, after a prior emergency hospitalization a month earlier. That may be. It's been so long ... Repatriated from Australia, formerly temporarily domiciled at the home of Antonio Miletti-Miletich in Trieste, Via Molino a Vapore 2. Fantastic, I tricked you. The main thing is to change your name and give a false address. They have a mania for labelling you once and for all, for sticking you in a neat loculus even now, name surname and address engraved by the undertakers for all time, and instead you mix up the names, dates, numbers ... Some you leave as they are, correct, others you scramble a little, so they can't make head or tail of it and won't know where to go looking for you. It's just fine with me if they think I'm up there in Barcola, with my head right side up, looking across the Gulf of Trieste at Istria, the cathedral of Pirano and Punta Salvore, that way it won't occur to anyone down here, at the Antipodes, to look for me among those standing on their heads.
Born in Hobart Town, in Tasmania, on April 10, 1910. If you say so. Widowedgross mistake. Married. Marriage is indissoluble, it doesn't give a damn about death, yours or mine. Usual occupation, noneactually yes, in fact, convict. And interrogee. Has held several jobs in the past. In Australia appears to have worked as a turner, then as a typographer at the printing office of the Communist Party in Annandale, Sydney, and as a journalist for Il Risveglio and La Riscossa in the same city. A member of the Anti-Fascist League of Sydney since 1928 and the Matteotti Circle of Melbourne, a militant activist, involved in the Russell Street riots in Melbourne in 1929 and those in Townsville in 1931. Deported from Australia in 1932, he returned to Italy, where earlier as a boy he had lived with his father, between the end of the First World War and the advent of Fascism. How satisfied you seem to be, reading all this, Doctor, you'd think it was your work, you aren't even aware of those erasures and touch-ups.
Thanks to you, not to me; I'm somewhat inept when it comes to using that contraption, with all those keys, and if they hadn't told me that it's called a PC, like that other one, the Party, I wouldn't even have tried it. Computer psychotherapy, new technological treatments for mental disorders. It's so much easier to break into a file cabinet this way. All it takes is a couple of key strokes, instead of all that wheedling to distract the dragon and steal the treasure, and it's you who step into that file, into your life, and rewrite or reinvent it however you like.Well, just a few modifications to dates and places plus a disguised name or two, modest alterations, no sense in overdoing it, then too I wouldn't even have been capable of it. Anyway I don't have many objections to that chart of mine. So then, where were we ...
Worked for a time as a clerk in the Monfalcone shipyard and at the Sidarma shipping company. Fired after being arrested for propaganda and anti-Fascist activities. Activist in the underground Communist Party. Arrested a number of times. Confirmed. Took part in the war in Spain. A soldier in Yugoslavia; after September 8, a partisan. Deported to Dachau. In 1947, emigrated to Yugoslavia along with two thousand "Monfalconesi" who went there to construct socialism. Worked in the Fiume shipyards.
After the split between Tito and Stalin, was arrested by the Yugoslavians as a Cominform supporter and deported in 1949 to the Gulag of Goli Otok, the Naked or Bald Island in the Gulf of Quarnero. Like the others, was subjected to bestial, back-breaking labour, torture and cruelty. His delirious disorders and pronounced delusions of persecution likely date back to that time. I'd like to see you, Dr. Ulcigrai, after undergoing that kind of treatment, Dachau and Goli Otok, a double dose of intensive therapy. Next of kin to be notified, none. That's right, none. Apart from everything else, it would be risky if anyone were to be notified about mesooner or later somebody is liable to snitch, maybe convinced he's doing the right thing because they told him you're an enemy of the people, a traitor.
Emigrated to Australia in 1951. An exceptionally strong constitution. Scarring from osseous tuberculosis contracted at Dachau. Other scars on various parts of the body. A mythomaniac tendency to exaggerate his misfortunes. Easy to say, for someone who hasn't been inside for even a day. Paranoid thoughtsright, after having been in all the Lagers in the world I have a mania about thinking they're out to get me. Obsessed by deportation to Goli Otok at the hands of the Yugoslavians in 1949. Maybe you're wondering about the reason for this obsession, another brilliant rhetorical question ...
Still, I like those rhetorical questionsit must have been Reverend Blunt who told me that's what they're calledbecause they teach you that questions never have an answer, unless you already have one in mind and state it yourself, as you often do, putting words in my mouth, but then it's pointless to bother asking. Though perhaps not, it's good to hear someone answer what you already know; it's only your own voice you're hearing, like when you're shouting in the wind up there on the ship's mast. The shout is lost at sea, you're the only one who heard what you shouted, but you're not too sure it's your voice, maybe a gust of wind brought you someone else's, shouted from the top of another vessel that has vanished over the horizon, like the many I saw vanish in the years I spent at sea; the ship ploughs swiftly ahead, leaving behind voices rising from the deck and from the hold, birds that circle above the stern and are then left behind, lost. For a while you can still make them out, those voices, then it becomes an indistinct shrieking, the wind smacks you in the face and the wings of birds flap in your ears, voices, shouts, words, all one unruly, whipped-up swarm in your head.
Whomever it belongs to, a voice is nonetheless a solace after hours and hours of being alone in a dark, fetid cell or up there on the mast, amid heavy seas that surge up, impervious, cannonades of spray against walls of cloud. There's quite a bit of shouting, alone or in a crowdno, you're never alone, someone's always on your backbut there's never anyone to answer when you ask for something you need. They all keep quiet then, like Sir George who remains silent when he receives my entreaties to forward my Petition for Pardon to London, after so many years in the penal colony down here.
I even mention Achilles and Agamemnon in thereas I read in that book I wrote, I bring them up saying that only kings and heroes like them require a Homer to sing their deedsin order to make an impression on the governor and those at the Van Diemen's Land Company. They should get it through their heads, and keep in mind, that not only can I handle an axe to repair the blade of an oar or cut a road through the foresteven better than many other convictsbut I can also wield a pen; it's true that I set sail when I was fourteen years old on an English collier carrying coal from Newcastle to Copenhagen and sailed for four years between London and the Baltic, but I've read my share of booksand even written themand I know the ancients maybe even better than our chaplain Bobby Knopwood knows the Bible.
Excerpted from BLINDLY by CLAUDIO MAGRIS Copyright © 2006 by Claudio Magris. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
A subtle, intelligent, and delicate story that, like a work of filigrane, you can read as a novel of adventures. A magnificent book.—Mario Vargas Llosa
I have read Claudio Magris's Blindly twice, in French and in English; but the real translation is his revelation of what is in his own words “the indistinct drama of life.” Never mind the literary ikon-busting Modernism, Post-Modernism. Not since Joyce’s Ulysses has there been great revelation of what the novel can be. Magris achieves this in fully realizing his own statement. The novel “is a voice that expresses not what we have consciously become but what we might have become and what we erupt at times, what we could be and hope and fear we can be.” Time-frame of this narration perhaps by a madman to the contemporary Confessor, the psychiatrist, is two centuries held in a contemporary mind adventurously, with ruthless insight and the cut and thrust of wit. Told by different people in different countries and under political edicts the “madman” in the splendid humanity of hubris: “I want to set the world right instead of trying to find myself a safe haven.—Nadine Gordimer
Blindly is an extraordinarily inventive, learned, poetic and entertaining dreambook, ranging over the world and the centuries and returning always to the prison island of Goli Otok It is surely a masterpiece.—John Banville