Passages from Blindly by Claudio Magris (Penguin Canada, 2010, Yale University Press, 2012)

Alla cieca © 2005 by Claudio Magris
English translation © 2008 by Anne Milano Appel
All rights reserved.

~ 1 ~
[…] It’s been raining since yesterday, an incessant rain that hammers
the eucalyptus leaves and the ferns, shiny and bright in the murky,
humid air, an insurmountable wall of water, and everything is on
the other side, the faces, the voices, the years … Istria too, up there,
is on the other side, in another world, it’s strange how from here I
seem to see it so clearly, so near, like when you look at it from the
coast of Barcola, but then it vanishes, dissolves … There were scores
of black swans, that day we sailed up the estuary of the Derwent
River on the Lady Nelson, a century ago, maybe two, flocks of black
swans in the sky, and occasionally I would shoot one down. The
meat had a pungent, gamy taste, I threw a few scraps to the convicts
in chains, whom we had come to drop off and who were chewing
their hardtack. The banks of the Derwent River were covered with
clumps of drenched, shiny grass, waterfalls and cataracts white as
snow plunged into the river from great heights, their fine particles
glinting in the sunlight, rotted logs got trapped in coves of brownish
water formed by the meandering current, a kangaroo ran off into
the bush. A forest brimming with confusion stood where Hobart
Town now stands, the light filtered in and disappeared like birds
in the tangle of branches, fungi and lichens clung to giant trees a
thousand years old.
It was there in that bay, at Risdon Cove, that we landed, that
we put ashore the convicts sentenced to forced labour; that’s how
Hobart Town was born. I remember the day perfectly, September
9, 1803. I went to check my autobiography and I’m glad to see
that this date is reported accurately, it shows the author’s diligence
and meticulousness. Hobart Town, the first civilian, military and
penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land. Above all penal. Every city
is founded on blood; it’s not surprising that the Risdon Creek
massacre occurred a short time later, perhaps the Aboriginal who
climbed naked on the Lady Nelson that first day to trade us his spear
for a roasted swan may have been among those massacred.
I’m just saying that, since afterwards no one bothered to find
out how things really went; even our Reverend Knopwood turned
a blind eye. Everyone always turns a blind eye to these things,
massacres I mean. Nelson did too, when he continued to bombard
my Copenhagen for hours and hours after the Danish fleet, trapped
in the strait, had been sunk; the city, battered and in flames, had
raised the white flag and Admiral Parker himself, the British
commander, had sent a ceasefire signal.
But Nelson brings the spyglass to his blindfolded eye, observes the
carnage with the wrong eye, the blind one, and sees only the black
patch, no white flag, I’m damned if I see it, the shells continue to fall on
people who no longer defend themselves, then come the surrender
ceremonies, admirals and dignitaries in full dress, swords handed
over and magnanimously returned, a blindfold is convenient, it
helps you close an eye to the slaughter.

~ 4 ~
A LITTLE ORDER, I agree, I was just about to say so, for one thing
because otherwise I’m the first to get lost. Moreover it’s not my
fault; with all these questions piling up, the responses get tangled
up too, because each time I have to stop and think and by the time
I answer there’s already another question, and so it seems like I’m
answering chaotically. For that matter, it’s a technique used in all
And don’t say you’re not asking me anything because I can sense
your questions just the same; I can read them on your clamped lips,
in the faces you make, even over there, in those other rooms, or who
knows where, when everyone questions all those things about me. I
hear them in my ears, your repeated cries, shouts, questions questions
questions; everyone wants to know everything, drag everything
that’s his out of a poor devil’s head, thoughts, images, memories,
facts. There are so many things in your head, smiles, seas, cities,
screeching hurricanes; the wind coils among the shrouds shrieking,
enters the convolutions of the brain and can’t get out, an eddying
whirlwind between one hemisphere and the other, right and left,
here and there, boreal and austral. I saw that photograph of mine,
Dr. Ulcigrai, on your table, I knew it was mine by the name, though
the name is debatable … but I would have recognized myself just
the same in that nocturnal galaxy exploding in the immensity, in
that grey and white corolla that exfoliates in the darkness, Identi-Kit
for wanted prisoner Salvatore Cippico -Cˇ ipiko, passport photo of
convict Jorgen Jorgensen, official portrait of His Majesty King of
Iceland, a section obtained through Brainvox magnetic resonance
imaging, I heard your henchman say in the usual sibylline jargon of
Yes, there are many things in a man’s head. Or there were,
because they take them from you, they empty you out; those black
plates, scored with white filaments like shooting stars in the night sky,
that bear my name, are the image of the dark, empty space that’s in
your head after they’ve taken everything from you throughout your
entire life. That milky obscurity, those clots floating through infinity
are me—if this is the portrait of a man, can one tell his story, does
he have a story, a life, this mushy pulp? But then Maria, white daisy
in the dark glade, her eyes slanted, tender, ironic … those dark stars,
gleaming in the night …
I have some difficulties, however, with those translucent portraits
of mine in your folder, Dr. Ulcigrai. I recognize myself more clearly
in the photo printed in the Hobart Town Almanack that accompanies
my autobiographical sketch. I doubt that your x-rays are as durable
and I’d like to see them, after a century.
It’s sharp, distinct. Moreover you’re already familiar with it, it
must have been you who stuck it in that magic lantern of yours
the other day, like my uncle Bepi used to do sometimes in the
evening …

~ 8 ~
I LOVED THE SEA more than women, before I understood that they
are one and the same. But I only understood this later, much later
than that night in London when, fleeing from that girl, I ended
up running into a press gang that dragged me onto a scow on the
Thames and from there on board a fine warship, the Surprize. Yes,
I fled. It happens. Haven’t you ever been afraid? That body that is
no longer yours, you don’t even recognize its odour, a sour sweat—
you’re no longer in control, you can’t order yourself not to sweat,
not to have that odour.
I like to give orders—also to obey, it’s all the same, it’s I who
decide, even whether to submit to the Party, for example. You know
what you have to do and you do it. But that night in London, after
disembarking from the Jane, that night in that tavern with that girl,
I didn’t know who was giving the orders and who was obeying. My
body was there, remote, sweaty, chilled; I felt that when it came to
love, even the five-minute variety, no one gives orders and no one
decides. What do you do, with a girl like that, what do you say to
her, who is it that makes the first move, what will it be like … Clear
out of there, cut and run, even brutally if she won’t take no for an
answer, as soon as you turn the corner the fear, and shame, will
pass. I’ll be able to get a pint of cold beer somewhere, which I can’t
seem to get down now, ah yes, beer, cold, frothy, you can feel your
arms again, your legs; even the sweat is different, a good sweat. It’s
a delight when the beer slides down your throat and into your belly,
and when, soon afterwards, you go to take a piss, even your pecker
is free and easy again, relaxed; every once in a while, who knows
why, it makes your pants bulge, but that’s its business and you pay
no attention to it, any more than when you belch, especially since
it’s quick to settle back in place.
Of course, that time I didn’t get to drink any beer, the press
gang grabbed me almost immediately, there in the alley, before I
could duck into another tavern. But that’s not the point. What I
find a lot more objectionable are those malicious stories insinuated
by my biographers, more or less all of them—Clune, Stephenson,
Davies, and now even that Dan Sprod, who thinks he’s so smart.
It’s true that I wrote that I was the only one of my siblings not to
be nursed by my mother, I went and checked, and so they had a
great time with my not having been breast-fed, surely I don’t have
to explain these obsessions to you, since they are common even in
here … Aside from the fact that I’m not the one whothat,
it’s Thomas, in the Adventures of Thomas Walter—I wrote that novel
in prison, in Newgate, even that pedantic biographer of mine says
so, and I invented all of it—Oh well, all of it, no one ever invents
anything, for that matter, and when one writes “I” … yet how could
one say “he” instead, which is an even greater lie than “I”? You
don’t mean to tell me you’re talking to him now … All right then,
that time I did not make love, let them go ahead and write it. I
like a biography that recounts everything you don’t do—Still you
had to be there, that night, to understand … that confusion, in
the tavern and outside, the crowded streets, the shouts and brawls,
someone lying in the gutter, half dead, the peddlers passing nearby
hawking honeyed fruitcake at the top of their lungs, people flocking
to Mother Proctor’s Pews scuffling to get the best place from which
to watch the hangings at Tyburn gallows, the roosters ripping each
other to pieces in the cockfights at the Cockpit, the chained bear
tearing the dogs limb from limb at the Bear Garden and those
large tents with their monsters, those dazed brutes … And in all
this pandemonium, two lost, solitary creatures, me and you, a girl
without a name, what should we have done if not flee, rather than
uttering false words of love or faking loving gestures, even for five
minutes? That night I fled, a deserter from the battlefield of love,
savage like all battlefields. If only I had always fled like that, later on
as well, perhaps now—later instead I was no longer able to flee, or
abandon the flag—you should always have three or four of them,
flags that is, if you hand over the right one to those in command,
saying that you tore it away from the enemy in the dust of battle,
you’ll even get a reward, and they’ll pay for your wine at the tavern
besides … but instead, look where the red flag ended up taking me,
that flag forever in my grasp, a far cry from cut and run—

~ 18 ~
FORGIVE ME AGAIN, Doctor, it was just a sudden dizziness, for
a moment I couldn’t see anything anymore, just a dazzling dust
mote that was hurting my eyes. It happens. Now it’s gone and
everything is clear, like Maria’s face. The fault of that revolving
door with the glass panes, at the Café Lloyd in Fiume where we
would go sometimes in the evening. One time I saw her arriving; I
was already inside waiting for her, she crossed the street, smiled at
me from beyond the transparent door and entered it, making the
panels turn; as she passed between them her figure and her face
were mirrored in those revolving plates of glass and shattered into
changing reflections, a handful of luminous, fragmented splinters.
And so, between one revolving panel and another, she vanished.
I must have stayed there a long time watching those glittering
door panes; years sitting inside there, as the door revolves more
and more slowly and nobody comes in. It’s understandable that
your head spins too and after a while you don’t even remember
so well who it was that disappeared between one pane and the
other, whose smile it was. For a moment, for instance, catching a
glimpse of her in the street, I thought it was Mangawana; that she
too had crossed the great sea. It was I who called her that, under the
huge eucalyptus trees leaning out over the waters of the Derwent:
that ancient Aboriginal name, to tease her about her dusky skin,
dark like my mother’s. Instead it was Maria—yes, she was also
Mangawana, because Maria was the sea into which all rivers flow.
Loving a woman does not mean that you forget all the others, but
rather that you love them and desire them and have them all in her.
When we made love on the solitary beach of Levrera or in that
room in Miholašćica, there was also the austral forest at the edge of
the ocean, Terra Australis Incognita.
Instead in Fiume, that day … When Maria, seeing that I was
incapable of leaving, took my hand, placed it on her breast, then led
me to the door, in the scented dawn, helping me to go—the journey
is the beginning of the return, she smiled at me, but I knew, at least
I think I did, that there would be no return, by decree of the gods
whom I—by some distortion of my heart’s will—had set above my
heart and that smile.
Perhaps I never loved her as much as I did at that moment, when
I lied about returning and embarked on the search for the fleece;
while she held my hands a moment longer, and at the same time,
gentle yet resolute, helped me disengage mine—Hypsipyle bidding
farewell to Jason: “Go, and may heaven bring thee back again with
thy comrades unharmed, bearing to the king the golden fleece,
even as thou wilt and thy heart desireth; and this island and my
father’s sceptre will be awaiting thee, if on thy return hereafter thou
shouldst choose to come hither again. Still remember Hypsipyle
when thou art far away and when thou hast returned; and …”—
“Well, don’t you know how the rest goes, like in school?—Come
on … Here, repeat with me, “and leave me some word of bidding,
which I will gladly accomplish, if haply heaven shall grant me to
be a mother.”—Enough, we’re not in school, prompting during an
oral quiz … We don’t want to recite the whole book, now, do we?
And don’t ask me, please, if the gods … what do I know, what can
I know … Jason doesn’t meet her eyes either when he solemnly
replies: “Hypsipyle, so may all these things prove propitious by the
favour of the blessed gods.” When I raised my eyes, she wasn’t there
anymore, she had vanished—no, she was there, like always, but I
didn’t know who she was, a beautiful figurehead without a name
that the fury of the storm tore from the sunken ship, she drifts along
rising and falling with the waves, her large eyes turned upwards, to
an emptiness even greater than that of the sea.

~ 84 ~
THIS IS GALATEA. She was found on an African beach following a
shipwreck, and was worshipped like a goddess by the aborigines;
other figures ended up adorning inns and taverns, so that the sailors
might feel a little more at home even when they were on land.
You see, figureheads were evicted from the sea and so they manage
as best they can, I’ve discovered more than one of them displaying a
coiffure in a beauty salon window or modelling a dress in an apparel
store—well disguised of course, a proper mannequin, but she
didn’t escape my attention. Still, I pretended not to notice anything,
everyone gets by as best they can. We buried one of them—read
what it says here—the one from the Rebecca, a whaling ship from New
Bedford, among the rocks by the sea. Under the bones of the waves,
as they say in Iceland, we drank beer in her honour, her funeral beer;
women should have one too, it’s only fair, we got drunk and sang the
Office for the Dead on her grave of sand and stones. Lewdness too,
as is fitting; death is lewd and sorrow is lewd. I’d like to piss on my
grave, the flowers on a grave have to be watered, don’t they? I even
do it, when nobody can see me, there in St. David’s Park.
On the figurehead from the Rebecca all we did was pour some
beer, but we didn’t do it on purpose, it’s just that we were a little
drunk; besides, the waves quickly washed it away, that rank odour
vanished in the salt sea air and now there’s not a trace, not even the
grave, the tide scraped and sucked it away, maybe now she rises and
falls on the open sea, corroded by the water, wood that is no longer
distinguishable from any other remains of a shipwreck. Even a face
composed of flesh soon deteriorates, the fish devour it and it quickly
becomes unrecognizable, an unrecognizable piece of flotsam from
the sea. It was I who pushed Maria, on the open sea and under the
sea; I threw her to the sharks as food and so I was spared by them.
Savage teeth tore her from my arms—no, it was I who let her go,
who shoved her into those jaws, all the more voracious because her
heart was bleeding and the brutes get even more excited at the taste
of blood, the slave drivers lash out more enthusiastically when they
see red trickling down their captives’ backs.
And so she disappeared in that shadowy sea, in that darkness.
But I read that sometimes shipwrecked figureheads return. Maria
disappeared on the open sea, the ship vanished over the horizon,
and when I heard that it was returning to port I also heard that it
was returning without her—she was no longer there, they must
have treacherously thrown her overboard, of course, how could
I think that one small push … I read, in the catalogue, about a
sculptor who chose his beautiful girlfriend to be the model for the
figurehead of a ship on which she was about to leave on a long
voyage—for her, soon afterwards, the longest voyage of all: she
died. Every day he watched the sea disconsolately, he couldn’t
believe she was dead and when the ship re-entered the port and
he saw the figurehead, standing upright on the prow, identical to
her—he leapt into the water to go to her, longing to embrace her,
but he went under. Waterlogged and dazed, water in his nose in
his mouth in his ears, it was impossible to see the ship as it passed
by, to see whether she was there or not. She wasn’t there, Eurydice
vanishes; look how beautiful she is, this Eurydice wiping her tears
with the edge of the mantle that envelops her. She too is in La
Spezia, the caption says; we’ll see if I’m able to successfully recreate
her, that mantle is the dark water, the night, the bottom of the sea,
I’ll pull it over my head and we’ll stay under there, close together,
clinging to one another …

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