At a moment of writers’ block, “the United Kingdom came to my rescue,” declares Javier Cercas in The Blind Spot: An Essay on the Novel, that is based on his Weidenfeld Lectures at Oxford in May 2015. The United Kingdom is in fact The Telegraph, or to be precise, an article by Umberto Eco, quoting a Telegraph survey showing that 25% of British people believed Winston Churchill to be a fictional character.

From this, Cercas, always ingenious, superbly daring in his syllogisms, and impassioned in his search for the fiction of truth or the truth of fiction, finds, at last, a way out of what he considers the problem with his draft of The Anatomy of a Moment: the historical moment is nothing less than the result of “a great collective fiction constructed… on the basis of embellished speculations, invented memories, legends, half-truths and simple lies” – “a delirium.” It is a provocative statement for a man intent to get to the true core of literary creation, of critical thinking and of the genuine value of all words of fiction or reality.

The Blind Spot is anchored on milestone works in the Cercas corpus as well as on monuments of modernist and postmodernist theory and literature. Through its pages, Lessing and Adorno cross paths with Kafka, Melville or Cervantes, or swords with E.M. Forster or Abel Chevalley, Robbe-Grillet, Borges, Kundera or W.S. Sebald. They may walk hand in hand with Joyce and Proust, Flaubert and Balzac, stand in arch adoration of Mario Vargas Llosa and Blanchot. At the heart of this magisterial intellectual foray lies the purest writerly mind: Cercas cares deeply about writing, its craft and ethos, its past and its prospects (if any) for a future. He is, like one of his titles suggests, an old-fashioned anatomist in an era of meta-physicians. He pores, probes, tickles literary questions, conundrums and sempiternal axioms, in search for that most elusive snow leopard of all: the key to how a novel from mere fiction or narrative becomes a great work of the human imagination – and perhaps soul.

Cercas thrives on ostensible naiveté (a postmodernist take on the Socratic trope of ignorance before knowledge and wisdom), but also on paradoxes that provide stunning glimpses into a truly formidable literary mind.”

His theory is that all great novels share the talent for ambiguity, for a blind spot that escapes the author’s control or intentions, and empowers the reader who provides the compensation of understanding beyond the pages or the narrative, just as the brain makes up for what the eye cannot see (the blind spot is an optical observation transposed onto the varifocal optics of literary critics). It is a thrilling theory, and though not necessarily a novel or always a particularly original one, at least in its essence, it is certainly engrossingly original and creative in Cercas’s execution. Poetic as it may sound, audacious and maverick as it may seem, Cercas’s analysis is not so very different from Aristotle’s notion of tragic irony (the blind spot in the character’s perception of their destiny that can only be overcome or contextualised by the audience), of a moral purpose to and an ethics of writing, or the most basic stylistic elements of the best kind of writing, such as litotes, or the finer minimalism of storytellers who aim at something more than crude realism, who know how to embed the reader in the writing experience rather than exteriorise the Other of the text. William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity or Wallace Stevens’ The Necessary Angel are somewhat sadly absent from Cercas’s array of challenging predecessors or companions on his quest for what he interestingly and persistently calls the ‘authenticity’ of the literary endeavour – and of his own enterprise.

Cercas thrives on ostensible naiveté (a postmodernist take on the Socratic trope of ignorance before knowledge and wisdom), but also on paradoxes that provide stunning glimpses into a truly formidable literary mind: “it is precisely this darkness through which [great] novels illuminate; it is precisely that silence through which [blind-spot] novels become eloquent.” The search itself for an answer to a question, only to find that there is no answer except the search itself, the book itself, the question itself, is his sustaining theme and primary principle, and to an extent his cri de guerre as an apologist of a postmodernist poetics but also ethics of existence and of thinking.

The Blind Spot is, in fact, an anatomy and a genealogy of the postmodern principle in art and life, as much as it is an investigation into the right (or not) to infringe literary laws. Determined to define (or at least to search for, to follow his ‘blind spot’ precept) an ontology and even an eschatology of the novel, Cercas assumes the role of a cartographer of the paths writers and literary theoreticians have taken in the effort to understand the nature and raison d’être of man’s vital dependence on words, on stories, on connections through the communication of language, ideas, dreams and nightmares. It is erudite in its details, lavish in its grand gestures, imposing in its mastery of the vision it upholds. It is also endearingly evocative in its loyalties, personal passions, affections and even perhaps minor or major obsessions. This is an unquestionably euphoric, fervent and very intimate account of literature, not only from the point of view of its craftsmanship, but especially from that of the visceral and at the same time intensely intellectual authorial experience of writing, of being-in-writing, or even of being only because of writing.

Cercas moves often rivetingly between sweeping, almost aphoristic assertions and masterly closer readings, and it is in this seemingly heedless oscillation that he reveals to us truly thrilling elements of genius as an interpreter.”

Cercas is fascinated with the classic figures of the European literary tradition, but especially with Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa and with French literary theorists; this could perhaps be perceived as Cercas’s own blind spot with regard to his search for a new, or for a constantly renewable poetics, the principle of transmutability being one he particularly values in all forms of literary practice and expression. One might say that he relies, not infrequently, too much on a pyrotechnic virtuosity and ethereality of language, rather than sustain a simplicity of thought and of word that would lead to the depths he wishes to fathom.

Does this stop his readers from joining in this dance and song of ideas and lost voices that he leads us on? Not at all, and whether intoxicated, bemused, or exhilarated, we do so willingly, if only to witness a palpably pulsing, great mind at work. Cercas moves often rivetingly between sweeping, almost aphoristic assertions and masterly closer readings, and it is in this seemingly heedless oscillation between the two that he reveals to us truly thrilling elements of genius as an interpreter. His take on Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo is one such case, and so one could say is his lengthy eulogy of Mario Vargas Llosa, were it not tinged rather too heavily with a not-so-slight measure of hero worship.

“Blind-spot novels and short stories are not the ones that contain ambiguities, contradictions, paradoxes and ironies, because every good novel and all good short stories do; blind-spot novels and stories are those that place ambiguity, contradiction, paradox and irony in their very centre, so their power irradiates throughout the whole text” – in simple terms, the litmus test is a complex ambiguity that creates a liberating, meaningful polysemy. Or, to quote Barthes, as quoted by Cercas, “A work is eternal not because it imposes a single meaning upon different men, but because it suggests different meanings to a single man.”

The fundamental question of blind-spot novels “is always similar,” Cercas points out, “because it is always moral, that it always pertains to the nature of human being, to the infinite complexity of humanity.” He distinguishes also between ambiguity and vagueness, between nihilistic sarcasm, and irony “as Cervantes conceived it, which shows that reality is always equivocal and multiple and that contradictory truths exist.” That, in Cercas’s view, is our “indispensable tool for knowledge” which he still, always, and with humorous, even if paradoxical irrefutability, unfailingly considers possible.

It may be that many of the arguments and the impassioned prose of The Blind Spot will seem familiar echoes, truths (or disclaimers to single truths) spoken by many others and at many different moments in time. Yet it is also true that at our particular point in social, intellectual, ontological and ethical history, we may urgently need to be reminded of the value of an intelligence that relates to an ethos of practice rather than to its absolute potential and total powers. From that perspective, The Blind Spot can be said to be a necessary read, a vital diatribe and call to arms, as well as to a literary, intellectual, essentially human conscience.

It is essentially a tone poem of the mythology of a generation, of the permeating aura of a rather nebulous system of thought, postmodernism. It is also a reminder of all that our spectrum of perspectives may offer.”

Cercas demands a “faithfulness to the theoretical nobility” of intellectuals, taking to task but also paying homage to Sartre and his generation. Byron first used the term intellectual in a text in 1813, but of course Kant had defined the figure before him (and had certainly built on the understanding and theoretical work of others that had preceded him). Cercas separates unflinchingly the chaff from the grain, the true thinker of ideas from the false intellectuals who “preached the substitution of one dogma for another; renounced the liberty of reason to subject themselves to the unanimity of slogans; justified the worst atrocities, spread, or were incapably of denouncing, the most flagrant lies and used the causes they defended to promote themselves.” Reader be warned, for all his love of fiction, his near-veneration of ambiguity, Cercas demands the purest heart and mind from anyone venturing upon his path of words, paragraphs and lines.

Cercas is optimistic that today there are, in fact (and against all odds and appearances), quite a few genuine intellectuals. Milan Kundera, Tony Judt, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Michel Onfray, Alain Finkielkraut, Michel Houellebecq and Jacques Julliard number amongst his dream-team that will salvage all that is most precious in our fictional, real literary world.

The Blind Spot is very refreshingly honest in its directness, of discourse as well as of thought, reassuringly idealistic in its vision of a perfect society as requiring indispensably only teachers, doctors and men who say no. It is essentially a tone poem of the mythology of a generation, of the permeating aura of a rather nebulous system of thought, postmodernism. It is also a reminder of all that our spectrum of perspectives may offer: the new is fundamentally the creative rereading of the old, harmony can in fact be born from contrapuntal dissonance, and contrary to the stereotypical (and rather limited) reading of the Aristotelian code. As Heraclitus and the Pre-Socratics already knew, and as Isaiah Berlin refashioned it for a later humanity, “not all values pursued by humanity, now and in the past, are necessarily compatible with each other.” Cercas upholds this balance of incompatible coexistence with rare dignity and fine bravado in this fascinating, engagingly contentious collection of essays on fiction, the art of literature, and perhaps the art of living and thinking itself.

 

Javier_Cercas_290Javier Cercas, born in 1962, is a novelist, short-story writer and columnist, whose books include Soldiers of Salamis (which sold more than a million copies worldwide, won six literary awards in Spain and was filmed by David Trueba), The Tenant and The Motive, The Speed of Light and The Anatomy of a Moment. His books have been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in Barcelona. The Blind Spot, translated by Anne McLean, is published in hardback and eBook by MacLehose Press.
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Author portrait © Sonia Balcells

Anne McLean is a Canadian translator who has translated works by Javier Cercas, Julio Cortázar, Evelio Rosero and Juan Gabriel Vázquez, among others. She was awarded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 and 2009 for her translations of Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis and Evelio Rosero’s The Armies, and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2014 for Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s The Sound of Things Falling.

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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