This demonstrates, if we needed more proof, that the novel is still conquering new territory, and that the famous discussion of its end is only an unequivocal symptom of the end of those who promote that
The Blind Spot: An Essay on the Novel actually comprises four distinct essays on the topic of the novel, albeit with common threads. Deliberately or otherwise the copyright page contains the standard “This book is a work of fiction” disclaimer, which it isn’t, but it is perhaps a fitting error, given this is a book about what comprises a novel, including whether a novel necessarily needs to be fictional.
The resulting collection is a worthy modern successor to Kundera’s essays “The Art of the Novel” and “Treatments Betrayed.” The former, which I read some twenty years ago, had a major effect on my own personal reading, particularly my appreciation of the non-English language European novel, and clearly Cercas himself was influenced in his thinking here, citing Kundera extensively in his first essay.
Cercas has had seven novels translated into English: Soldiers of Salamis, The Tenant and The Motive (actually two separate novellas), The Speed of Light, Outlaws (the only one I have not read), The Anatomy of a Moment, and The Impostor. The last two of these could be seen as not novels at all, being based in fact not fiction, but to Cercas they are still novels. In The Impostor, he described The Anatomy of a Moment as “a curious book, a strange novel-without-fiction, a rigorously true story, devoid of the slightest trace of invention or imagination.”
And the first essay here focuses on what constitutes a novel. He starts his history of the modern novel with Don Quixote, saying Cervantes “the author of Don Quixote is neither a perspectivist nor a relativist, but an ironist.” His description of this masterpiece neatly sums up its abiding influence:
The modern novel is a unique genre because it might be said that, at least potentially, all its possibilities seem contained in a single book: Cervantes founded the genre with Don Quixote and at the same time exhausted it — albeit by making it inexhaustible — or, in other words: in Don Quixote Cervantes defines the rules of the modern novel by marking out the boundaries of the territory in which we novelists have all operated ever since, and which we may not yet have finished colonising.
He argues that the novel is or at least originally was a literary form that is, or was, sub-genre as it absorbs all other genres, hence why it needn’t even be fictional:
Epic, history, poetry, essay, journalism: these are some of the literary genres that the novel has absorbed over the course of its history.
He traces three phases of the novel (pace Kundera):
The first, which would stretch from Cervantes to the end of the eighteenth century, is characterised mostly by compositional liberty, by alternating narration and digression (or, if you prefer, narration and reflection) and by the blending of genres; the second, which would begin with the blooming of the realist novel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, is defined by opposition to its antecedent: although it benefits from the absolute liberty with which Cervantes endowed the genre, it rejects it in the interests of constructive rigour, just as it rejects digression in the interests of narration; although it benefits from the plebeian, hybrid or mestizo nature with which Cervantes endowed the novel, it rejects it in the interests of the purity, status and nobility the genre has longed for.
This second phase for many writers and readers still defines the novel now at the start of the 21st century. But he, again following Kundera, argues for a third phase, postmodern narratives, combining the best of the 1st and 2nd phases:
A synthesis that does not pretend, to use again the words of the Czech writer, simply to rehabilitate the principles of the first-movement novel nor to reject the second-movement novel, but to redefine and broaden the very notion of the novel, to resist the reduction carried out by the nineteenth-century’s aesthetic of the novel and thus give the resulting novel its entire historical experience as a foundation.
Kundera’s own best novels – with their delicate balance between maximum liberty and maximum compositional rigour, with their organic blend of narration and digression or narration and essay – are a good example of this third period of the novel; so are the best works of Perec or Calvino.
He argues that the origin of this third phase lies, indisputably, with Borges, beginning with “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim”:
In Borges, the short story and the essay mingle and fertilise each other (as in other ways they also do, around the same time, in the work of Broch or Musil); just as they fertilise and mingle in certain contemporary authors: I’ve already mentioned Perec, Calvino and Kundera; I would add W. G. Sebald, the Julian Barnes of Flaubert’s Parrot and, perhaps most of all, J. M. Coetzee, who in the last few years has probed the horizons of the territory mapped out by Don Quixote with great audacity.
The second chapter is the one from which the collection takes its title. Here Cercas traces the history of a particular type of novel, which he dubs the blind-spot novel, a type that he (unsurprisingly) traces back to Cervantes, and into which he places his own work, indeed a type of novel that very much satisfies his definition of what a novel should do, one which makes the reader as, arguably more, important to the interpretation of the novel as the author:
The novel is not the genre of answers, but that of questions: writing a novel consists of posing a complex question in order to formulate it in the most complex way possible, not to answer it, or not to answer it in a clear and unequivocal way; it consists of immersing oneself in an enigma to render it insoluble, not to decipher it (unless rendering it insoluble is, precisely, the only way to decipher it). That enigma is the blind spot, and the best things these novels have to say they say by way of it: by way of that silence bursting with meaning, that visionary blindness, that radiant darkness, that ambiguity without solution. That blind spot is what we are.
In other words: in the end there is no clear, unequivocal, emphatic answer; only an ambiguous, equivocal, contradictory, essentially ironic answer, which doesn’t even resemble an answer and that only the reader can give.
He draws on examples including Kafka, Melville (and of course Cervantes), and from his own work Outlaws as well as Anatomy of a Moment, arguing that the latter’s focus on one very specific and somewhat obtuse question which it then fails to unambiguously answer is what makes the book a novel rather than history.
But he argues that certain otherwise great novels, particularly in the realist tradition, such as Lampadusa’s The Leopard, fail in that they (in his view unnecessarily) resolve their own ambiguity:
The reason might be that this tradition of the novel, as it took shape in the nineteenth century, encourages before all else the impossible ambition to create a novel similar to a hermetically sealed world, a replica or a duplicate of the real one, while, in a novel, the blind spot is a crack, a vanishing point of meaning that is at the same time the principal source of meaning. This would maybe explain why, in the few realist novels with a blind spot that occur to me, the blind spot is there as if against the author’s will, without the author seeming to have sought it, or without being entirely aware of it; sometimes even as if the author had fought against it.
If I had been with Lampedusa when he wrote the sentence where he clarifies without leaving room for doubt that Concetta was Tancredi’s true love (“And so a new spadeful of soil fell on the tumulus of truth”),I would have shouted: “No, please, don’t make that clear! Keep quiet about that! You don’t know whether the one Tancredi truly loved was Concetta!” And, if Lampedusa hadn’t died before seeing his novel published and I had been Giorgio Bassani, his editor at Feltrinelli, and had worked with him on the manuscript, I would have done everything possible and impossible to convince him to delete that comment. Because it’s a mistake.
It’s not as grave an error as if at the end of Don Quixote Cervantes had revealed that in reality Don Quixote was never mad, or if at the end of Moby Dick Melville had clarified that in reality Moby Dick represented God and good, or if at the end of The Trial Kafka had shown that in reality Josef K. had committed murder and that’s why they had wanted to try him, but it’s still an error.
The third essay focuses on Mario Vargas Llosa and in particular his debut novel La ciudad y los perros (literally The City and the Dogs, although entitled The Time of the Hero in the English translation), a novel Cercas sees as key in the reclaiming of the novel by Spanish language writers. He sees Vargas Llosa, alongside García Márquez, Cortázar, Rulfo, Carpentier, Bioy Casares, Cabrera Infante, Fuentes, Onetti, and Sábato as writers that finally reclaimed the legacy of Cervantes for the Spanish language (if not for Spain itself):
A group of Latin American novelists reclaimed the lost legacy of Cervantes, turned literature in Spanish on its head and, possessed by crazed ambition — they wanted to be Faulkner and Flaubert, Joyce and Balzac all at once — placed the novel in Spanish back at the axis of the western novel of its time, returning it to the privileged place that up until then only Cervantes had occupied; these novelists occupy, in my novelistic tradition, a huge space: they are the great modern prose writers that Spanish modernity did not have and, at the same time — at least some of them — the first writers of postmodernity.
No novelist represents better than Vargas Llosa the best of these novelists, and few novels can aspire to symbolize better than The Time of the Hero the beginning of that literary earthquake.
Cercas makes a compelling case for the greatness of The Time of the Hero, and fits in within the context of the first two chapters, although this particular chapter is hard to appreciate fully without a detailed knowledge of Vargas Llosa’s work.
It is memorable though for one excellent anecdote that relates back to his blind spot.
Vargas Llosa has often told that when the French translation of La ciudad y los perros was published, Roger Caillois asked him who, in his opinion, had killed the Slave; this, naturally, is the crucial question of the book, and Vargas Llosa answered saying that he thought he’d been killed by one of his classmates, the one nicknamed the Jaguar. Then Caillois, as if he were the editor of The Leopard demanding that Lampedusa should not clarify who Tancredi had loved, said to Vargas Llosa: “No, please, don’t say that! You don’t know who killed the Slave!”
Of course, Caillois was right: in the first place because, no matter what the author might say, with the novel in hand there are just as many reasons to back up the theory that the Jaguar killed the Slave as there are to refute it; and, in the second place, and most of all, because Caillois understood that, if Vargas Llosa had cleared up the ambiguity by making it clear that the Jaguar had really killed the Slave, the novel would be a good novel, but without clearing up the ambiguity it’s much better.
The fourth essay tackles the issue of whether a writer should be “engaged” (or “political” or “committed”). Cercas grew up at the time when intellectual authors such as Sartre were more known for their political views than literary output and started his career firmly rejecting that model, noting with approval that:
On July 22, 1966, right after finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez wrote in a letter to his friend Plinio Mendoza: “Thinking of politics, the revolutionary duty of a writer is to write well [. . .] positive literature, engaged art, the novel as a rifle to overthrow governments, is a sort of steamroller that keeps one’s pen from rising a centimetre above the ground. And worst of all, what a waste of time, it doesn’t overthrow any governments!”
But later Cercas found himself pulled up short when his literary hero Vargas Llosa praised Soldiers of Salamis, to Cercas’s delight, but for a reason that surprised and even dismayed him:
Those who believe that committed literature has died should read Soldiers of Salamis to find out how alive it is, how original and enriching it is in the hands of a novelist like Javier Cercas.
I’d never met Vargas Llosa in person, but he was one of the literary heroes of my youth and — especially after that article that contributed in a decisive way to turning a book destined to have a handful of readers into a bestseller, and turned me into a professional writer — I was more prepared than ever to overlook his loyalty to Sartre and to engaged literature, and even his conspicuous position as an intellectual. But, dear God, I thought as I read that horrendous sentence that rounded off his article, now I too am a committed writer? How could I have fallen to such depths? Is this the price of success?
When he eventually met Vargas Llosa, as happened on September 9, 2011, and queried the designation, Vargas Llosa told him:
Committed was, for him, literature that’s not merely a game or a facile pastime, but serious literature that avoids simplicity and dares to face up to, with the greatest ambition, weighty moral and political matters.
I asked Vargas Llosa to give me an example of a current committed writer; he gave me two, who were then just names to me: the South African writer J. M. Coetzee and the Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe.
This essay explores that thought as well as the two authors mentioned, Cercas concluding that:
I’ve often thought that a good writer is the opposite of a good politician: a good politician is someone who confronts a complex problem, reduces it to its bare essentials and solves it in the quickest way; a good writer, on the other hand, is someone who confronts a complex problem and, instead of solving it, makes it even more complex (and a brilliant writer is one who creates a problem where none existed).
Cervantes complicates our life for ever by posing in Don Quixote, in the most complex way possible, the insoluble problem of the insoluble contradiction between madness and sanity, as Melville posed in Moby Dick the insoluble problem of the insoluble contradiction between good and evil and Kafka posed in The Trial the insoluble problem of the insoluble contradiction between guilt and innocence.
He also argues, partly against David Foster Wallace, for a type of post modern literature that can be ironic (a term that appears often in the essays and which again echoes Kundera) yet still serious and engaged:
Literature, and in particular the novel, should not propose anything, should not transmit certainties or give answers or propose solutions; quite the contrary: what it should do is pose questions, transmit doubts and present problems and, the more complex the questions, the more anguished the doubts and more arduous and unsolvable the problems, the better. Authentic literature does not reassure: it worries; it does not simplify reality: it complicates it. The truths of literature in general, and of the novel in particular, are not clear, indisputable and unequivocal, but ambiguous, contradictory, multifaceted and essentially ironic.
It’s quite likely that destructive irony, the one that gets confused with sarcasm and even with cynicism, conducts us to a pitiless and sterile nihilism; but irony as Cervantes conceived it, which shows that reality is always equivocal and multiple and that contradictory truths exist, is an indispensable tool of knowledge. That irony is not the opposite of seriousness, but perhaps its maximum expression: without it there is barely any narrative, or at least novels, worthy of the name.
Cercas then adds an epilogue, written, in 2016, commenting on his essays.
He notes that The Impostor had a less confused reception than Anatomy of a Moment:
Just five years after the publication of that novel, everyone has accepted without many objections that my 2014 novel, The Impostor, is a novel, in spite of the fact, that like Anatomy, it lacks any fiction, and in spite of its multiplicity of genres being, if possible, even more intense and more visible than that of Anatomy. It might be thought that this is so because readers have now resigned themselves to my peculiarities in the same way that sane people go along with crazy ones; but it’s not true: the truth is, I think, that over recent years readers in many places are getting acclimatised to a freer, more plural, more open and more flexible model of novel.
He then cites Knausgaard as an example and gives the rallying cry that opens my review.
He acknowledges that his history of the novel to an extent could be accused of justifying his own works, but argues that is no bad thing:
I could be reproached, in effect, for proposing a reading of the modern narrative tradition, or of certain novels and stories key to modern narrative, which is a little teleological, self-justifying: given that my novels mix genres, I construct or identify a tradition of novels that mix genres; given that my novels revolve around a blind spot, I construct or identify a tradition of blind-spot novels.
This argument also strikes me as correct, except that I can’t see anything to reproach in it; quite the contrary.
Overall a fascinating overview, an excellent insight into Cercas’s own work, and one to generate a reading list of both historic and contemporary writers (although, hopefully more a comment on my wider range of reading than the book, one that introduced me to notably fewer new names than Kundera’s work 20 years earlier) as well as a manifesto that inspires hope that the novel will continue to evolve and prosper.
Recommended (as are Cercas’s novels, particularly the ones least like conventional novels).