Parable of the Blind, by Gert Hofmann, translated by Christopher Middleton, 978-1-56792-563-0, $18.95, coming November 2016.
The German post-war writer Gert Hofmann (1931-1993) is, famously, an unclassifiable writer. This crisis of identification stems, in part, from the lack of a unifying thread of subject or medium in his work: It was only late in his career that he turned from his preferred medium of radio plays to the writing of novels, publishing his first in 1980 and continuing to produce one or two a year until his death.
When discussing why he eschewed an academic career at a young age and decided to pursue a creative life, Hofmann claimed that he lacked a certain stultifying pedantry necessary for the former. His work as a novelist is marked by this refusal to obsessively mine a single theme, to rest with feet upturned within the grooves of an entrenched style. Perhaps his most famous novel, The Spectacle at the Tower, winner of the Alfred Döblin Prize, concerns the trip a couple in a strained marriage makes through a sere landscape toward a tower.
The Parable of the Blind, published a few years later, while superficially similar, is something entirely different. It presents itself as an origin story, a sort of imaginative ekphrasis that tracks the beleaguered provenance of one of Western art’s most curious masterpieces: Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Blind Leading the Blind.
Our six protagonists are the variously purblind subjects of the painting. Some of them are named, some nameless. They recount in a leaky first-person plural narration the events of the day on which they are scheduled to be painted: They are woken by a knocking; they are fed; they relieve themselves; they are led and misled through the numinous countryside, on their way to the home of the painter.
Hofmann’s short novel, especially in its first half, is lightly redolent of Beckett. The blind troupe traipses aimlessly through an amorphous countryside; they trip and tumble and collapse in tragicomic pratfalls; they are fundamentally unclean, grotesque. Among the members of the group a senseless, circular call-and-response sometimes springs up—voices, as in Beckett, are set entirely at cross-purposes, while simultaneously deprived of an awareness of different states of being. One cannot even understand that one has been misunderstood.
But Hofmann is playful, too. In The Parable of the Blind, it is not, as in Beckett, the inherent blindness of literary representation that cauls the text. It is a very literal blindness. All of the derelicts have been blinded in different ways, and they are all in different ways blind—none is quite sure of the specifics of the former, nor the extent of the latter. The very perception of perception is deluded, stripped of any power. And that is enough, Hofmann seems to say, to muddle our conception of the text, of narrative.
Where Beckett’s vagrants are frequently nodes lost in a muted landscape, Hofmann’s cadre forms a line—though they’re invested with no trajectory because of this. In fact, senselessness multiplies as the blind ones crocodile through their shaded world. It is as if Hofmann is suggesting that even before the state of utmost solitude that Beckett so effectively limns there are still unimaginable depths of darkness to be plumbed. “Even if the world slipped away from us entirely, we wouldn’t miss it,” the blind ones say. “Instead of pressing forward into it with words, we curl up without words inside what’s still there” (34). The individual armed only with language is eschewed in favor of the instinctual will-to-community—the animalistic curling-up that the blind ones propone is a more tactile engagement with the world; Hofmann wants us to feel senselessness, not simply dread it.
Though Beckett’s not the only influence to be reckoned with, here. When the blinded finally reach the home of the famous painter (whose name, within the novel, is withheld), the influence of another writer begins to be felt. The painter speaks with an inborn aggression, cantankerousness, and cynical vitriol that recall the works of Thomas Bernhard, another German writer and heir to Beckett whose life was roughly contemporaneous with Hofmann’s.
The painter’s thoughts are curiously italicized, as those of Bernhard’s protagonists frequently are. Of the signs of destruction he notes everywhere in the world, the painter muses: “The sea boiling and very far off, the sky covered by a pall of smoke, glare of a fire behind soaring mountains—a memory of the far Alps—are signs that even the remoter parts of the world have been devastated” (89-90). Of the significance of the world’s dying: “Even himself the painter can easily identify in the pictures of these spaces…himself dying, dead already. At night he is walled in by these spaces with their pictures, thus also by himself” (90).
The cruel and barren logical extension of “thus also by himself” is classic Bernhard, and the disconcerting italicizations that give hint of a madness that is yet logical in its own mad way contribute to the sense of exaggeration that pervades The Parable of the Blind. The novel itself is an exaggeration, a blow-up, as it were, of a particular moment in time, a particular image. But there is a paradoxical tinct to the nature of this exaggeration: As, for Beckett, silence was in a way the ultimate form of eloquence, so for Bernhard and Hofmann exaggeration refines rather than dulls or occludes the senselessness of the world.
It is not for nothing that Hofmann’s blind ones search for comfort, that at the start of the novel they have just woken from sleep and at novel’s end they appear to be preparing once more for slumber. For Bernhard, and I think also for Hofmann, exaggeration is like a blanket that is draped over and occludes the subject matter—but that is draped, nevertheless, with care, and affection. It doesn’t annul the confusing welter of the world, but preserves it instead.
The painter’s art relies on traps, Hofmann tells us, “like the length or brevity of the brush strokes, pigmentation, peculiarity of texture, the arrangement of the background” (106). And while this trap keeps one still and reproduces one’s image, it is still a soulless and antagonistic affair. It is Hofmann’s aim to lay down a blanket and show us the creatures beneath it: sorry, tawdry, and grotesque, but undeniably there.