March 2013

Matt Seidel

fiction

Blindly by Claudio Magris, translated by Anne Milano Appel

Nothing stays dry for long in Blindly, Claudio Magris's incantatory novel about a world awash in violence. No sooner is land reached than it is flooded, muddied, or worse, saturated in blood; typical is the fate of the island of Nyö, a volcanic island that, as the narrator recounts, sprang up in 1783 only to sink before Denmark, which had claimed the newly risen land, could plant its flag.

Magris is an Italian professor of German literature who is best known for his meditative, learned travelogue Danube, which followed that river's path across space and time. In his latest work to be translated into English -- and one that recalls another Italian scholar-fabulist, Umberto Eco -- Magris takes to the seas, "an immense Acheron flowing rushing into Hades." Among the numerous texts that Blindly references, perhaps the most important is a short verse from a Triestino poet named Colussi with a "passion for ocean bathing": "About my lot, I complain not, another place to bathe I've got." Bathe the narrator does, so much so that he himself is dispersed by the sea's obliterating power: "I was the frothy roar of the vortex and I was sucking myself under whirling around centrifugally...."

Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel, Blindly alternates between Zelig-like, picaresque adventures and the narrator's portentous reflections on the cruelty of history and myth. The novel's subject is a psychiatric patient, Salvatore Cippico, a Communist partisan who endures a traumatizing journey amid the shifting factions of mid-twentieth century Europe. He eventually is thrown in the "cold, fetid cells" of Tito's Yugoslavian island gulag, Goli Otok, in which he has to quarry sand in chest-deep water. (With mordant irony, the narrator reflects on its post-gulag transformation into yet another place to bathe, a luxury spa resort.)

Cippico, who may have a "mythomaniac tendency to exaggerate his misfortunes," recounts his extraordinary life, or rather multiple lives, to his doctors in a Trieste mental hospital. His years of persecutions have made him either justifiably paranoid or certifiably mad, which explains why Cippico also claims to be a figure from the nineteenth century: Jorgen Jorgensen. Jorgensen is the son of a Danish clockmaker who helps found Hobart Town (the penal colony on Van Diemen's Land to which he later returns as a convict), spies for the British in Denmark, stages a coup that temporarily makes him the King of Iceland, witnesses the battle of Waterloo and hobnobs with (and plagiarizes from) members of the British Royal Society. Furthermore, implicit in Cippico (Jorgensen)'s narrative is the belief that he is a modern-day Jason, an Argonaut embarking on an epic quest.

Such is the putative subject of the novel, but the novel's real subject is the sea, which enfolds both the world and the narrator in its "great shroud." As Cippico says at one point, "it's always the sea," which, like the Communist Party for which he works and suffers, has no pity. Cippico and Jorgensen are ferried by a series of Charons to various islands -- England, Tasmania, Iceland, Goli Otok -- those circumscribable rebellions against the seemingly infinite tyranny of the ocean. As "taking to the sea is an impious act, a violation of sacred confines and the order of the universe," the narrator finds everywhere the same tragic, absurd impulse to senselessly slaughter: "Butchery down here and up there, the aurora borealis and the aurora australis herald the same bloody sun..." The ever-shifting temporal and geographical frame of Magris's novel provides a fair sample of these butcheries, culling examples from Greek epic poetry to the Napoleonic Wars to twentieth-century totalitarianism, from the Arctic Vorkuta Gulag to the Antipodes. But the central historical anecdote from which Magris draws his title is Horatio Nelson's bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801, during which he is said to have held his telescope up to his blind eye so as not to see his commanding officer's ceasefire signal: "Betrayed. Betrayers, all taking aim with one eye blindfolded." (For another novelistic take on this episode recounted by an equally unhinged narrator, see Barry Unsworth's Losing Nelson.)

The novel's view of history as "a spyglass held up to the blindfolded eye" explains its obsession with figureheads, those hyper-stylized onlookers who stare unflinchingly into "the beyond, on imminent, unavoidable catastrophes" and "search for what is forbidden to the sailors, something that would be fatal for them to know." As distinct from the narrator's fantasy-ridden testimony and shifting allegiances (he is continually being accused of betraying his country or political cause), the figureheads endure, inscrutable, aestheticized versions of eternal patience and terrible wisdom. These feminine statues, which are described repeatedly and gorgeously, come to reflect the various Medeas (Marie, Maria, Mangawana) whom the narrator betrays or abandons throughout his travails. The novel questions the very possibility of constancy or loyalty -- to any party or any woman -- in so fluid a world, at least if one keeps one's eyes open. As Cippico notes while hollowing out the eyes of a figurehead (he is also a woodworker), "only emptiness can sustain the sight of emptiness."

The erudite Magris is not, however, blind to literary history. The narrator's "black gurgling pit of words" engulfs not only historical tragedies but also the titans of the modern novel: Beckett's torrent of words; Eliot's wasteland; Nabokov's mad, exiled king; Melville's monomaniacal captain (Jorgen, before his quixotic reign in Iceland, founds the Australian whaling industry); and most crucially, Conrad and his similarly drenched Heart of Darkness, which begins and ends alongside the "interminable waterway" of the Thames and in between journeys up the Congo River "into a place of cruel and absurd mysteries not fit for a human to behold." And like Kurtz, Cippico (Jorgensen) is a "universal genius" who has written, or claims to have written, works of cartography, botany, drama, geography, economics, theology, medicine, and navigation.

Blindly's master text, however, is the epic, island-hopping narrative of Jason, whose legendary, blood-drenched and betrayal-filled quest for the golden fleece mirrors the mad narrator's peregrinations. As in Jason's journey, the narrator's quest revolves around fleeces in various guises: red Communist flags, army uniforms and other symbolic garments:

Once, when I got these chills, I would wrap myself in the fleece that we had captured and that reddish cloth kept me warm. But now the fabric is all tattered; look how many holes, it must be the moths, or that it's too old, losing its reddish fur and falling apart, the wind blows through the blankets on all sides...

That tatterdemalion cloth is, like Cippico's account, ridden with holes. Indeed, Magris returns to the fleece's origins to divest it of its talismanic power, describing it as "the hide of the gentle calf torn to pieces by the bestial gods, by us." Moreover, the fleece has no rightful owner, no worthy hero to claim it, but only temporary possessors -- usurpers -- beginning with Jason, "a liar and a thief and, after the victory... a swine." The fleece was supposed to have conferred legitimacy upon Jason's claim to the throne, but his search produced a string of atrocities, misunderstandings and betrayals: "From its origins, the fleece was stained with sacred blood." And thus the cycle of violence and despoliation continues, ranging from ancient Colchis to Goli Otok.

Some of the best moments in Blindly are not the pronouncements that occasionally strain for effect ("History is an operating theater for surgeons with a firm wrist") or the legion self-reflexive statements ("the important thing is to resemble your own portrait, it doesn't matter who painted it") but the virtuoso set pieces: the 1794 fire in the Royal Palace of Christianburg castle, a kangaroo slaughter on Tasmania, Lord Uxbridge staging a burial for his lost leg at Waterloo, a peasant fable about a Croatian woman's twelve husbands, or the dubious King Jorgensen's expedition to chart his Icelandic domain. These tableaus provide welcome relief in a novel so intense in subject and execution. By the end of Blindly, one experiences the percolating motifs -- senseless slaughter, blindness, red flags, fleeces, figureheads -- almost as a kind of Chinese water torture. And yet that thematic and stylistic intensity is also the point. Nothing escapes the relentless tidal flow to oblivion unless one is, like Jason's Argo, translated out of history and into the heavens: "...the ship stood there forever, ancient yet new, intact and immortal, another yet the same, like me, like the gods."

Blindly by Claudio Magris, translated by Anne Milano Appel
Yale University Press
ISBN: 978-0300185362
400 pages