Juan Goytisolo: The Blind Rider

Blind Rider is a book that punishes too hasty readers. Not in the way that actually ‘understanding’ the book becomes a problem, or, Finnegan’s Wake-like, an impossibility. You can plow hastily through the book and feel you understood everything. Blind Rider is a strange novel, very well written (as far as you can see this through the usual haze of translation), but strangely not quotable.

At the center of it is a man who has lost his wife and is struggling with the way he perceives life, and more specifically, reality, religion and love. It is composed of small chapters, that often move from wonderfully observed particular to general observation, within generally three pages. There are differently structured chapters, of course, it’s not a strictly composed novel, as far as I see it.

Many passages are shockingly vapid, empty, cliché, they are good imitations of bad ‘philosophical’ literature, reminiscent of what Bernhard attacked so brilliantly as ‘writers of aphorisms’ in Der Untergeher. There is obviously a shallowness even in the passages that detail his loss. Taken chapter by chapter, not reading the whole novel, I’d say these are bad chapters, probably part of a bad book. Again, much of this is language, phrasing, things that could be due to whatever bee crept under this translator’s (Thomas Brovot) bonnet.

So, what do I mean by saying it punishes the hasty reader? Maybe I am, as usual, talking about my fat and bearded self. I came to this book with high expectations. One could call me a connoisseur of bleakness and by all accounts this book promised to be a trove of bleakness. And it started off so well, too. And I dug in, swallowing the book in big hungry gulps. I was, however, soon disappointed, because there is an abyss of abysmal writing to bleakness. Because of the surplus of strong emotion that seems, to the mediocre bleak writer, perfectly communicable by words and phrases treading well known paths, this sort of word, phrase or image (in pietry more often than not heavily indebted to Trakl) recurs time and again and becomes wearisome. All this may well be ‘heart-felt’ or ‘authentic’, but these are hardly literary terms and thus have no place in a defense of this book.

So I started to move along at a more and more sluggish pace, disappointment being the trouser around my ankles keeping me from running faster through the pages of this thin book. As the discourses with God cropped up, in line with a certain popular kind of cheap pseudo-theodicy, I wasn’t even more disappointed, I couldn’t be, as it appeared to be, to me, just more of the same uninspired dirge. Yes I noticed many literary references, mostly to Tolstoy’s prose, the Kreuzer Sonata, Hadschi Murat, War&Peace, Anna Karenina (how could I not have noticed) but it appeared to be, for me, just an undemanding way of putting meat on the bones of this skeleton of a narrative.

How could I have been so mistaken! This occurred to me within an hour of finishing the book. Something wasn’t right about my impressions but, off the cuff, I wasn’t able to tell what the problem was, exactly. So I reread the novel, and, as I said: boy was I wrong about it!

A hint of how this novel works surfaces in the dense web of explicit and implicit literary references. The careful structure (not strict but still careful) assures that nothing in it feels haphazard, incidental. Reading more than five mini-chapters in a row you immediately lose whatever thought of mediocrity one may have, the mind at work is obviously a brilliant one. The question of one’s ontological status (“do I exist?”), the web of literary reference, and the aforementioned insipidness of some of the remarks, which border on caricatures of so-called philosophical discourse.

The point to this, I guess, is, what does it matter? Theoretical discourse is exposed as disposable here. What does it matter, the narrator thinks, I feel, and grimly, blackly, sometimes blackly humorous, presents these cliché puppets of such discourses. A fellow student told me last week that he considered theory to be a nice exercise for idle brains but not much use in day-to-day life. And what happened to the narrator before the novel sets in has shown this to be true, to him.

There is a loss at the heart of this novel, which borders on being a poem, so well is it composed, so few words are incidental, a loss that has caused the narrator to lose faith. Not faith in God, faith in everything, language, reality, God. This book is an effort to resurrect his faith by trying to cope with the disability this loss of faith can be to a writer. If you don’t believe in the power of words to create anew, why not use the truism that, to you, everything has become? He uses art to spin off it the feelings he isn’t able to describe adequately, my knowledge of Tolstoy has allowed for strong insights into the protagonist which were, I believe, hidden within these references, as other insights are hidden within the formulaic formulations.

In the final chapters the writing gets better as the protagonists reality merges more and more with discourse and art, and is all subsumed by it, his loss has been taken up by art and language and transformed into Nothing. Bleakness? Yep, it’s about bleakness all right, and it’s a deeper, more fundamental bleakness than most writers manage to express, because it’s not expressible. This tiny novel is like a vampire, feeding off all sorts of sources, and it’s a brilliant spectacle watching it do it’s work. ISBN

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One thought on “Juan Goytisolo: The Blind Rider

  1. Good review. I found Goytisolo a master in deception. It seems a lot of people realise afterwards they missed something and it’s only when rereading that they see what it’s all about.

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