Javier Cercas is Spain’s leading novelist, best known for Soldiers of Salamis, and in The Blind Spot he builds a fascinating history of the novel beginning with Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the first novel, “an ‘epic in prose’.” What Cervantes created was “the way in which the novel has tried to appropriate things from other genres.” The novel began as a magpie form, Cervantes created “a great hodgepodge” by drawing from the literary genres of his day from poetry to political writing. While Don Quixote also establishes Cercas’ definition of the novel: “questions that require ambiguous, complex, plural, essentially ironic answers.”
Ambiguity and irony in a novel is described as “the blind spot” and for Cercas every great novel contains such a “blind spot”:
“at the beginning of them all, or at their heart, there is a question, and the whole novels consists of a search for the answer to this central question; when this search is finished, however, the answer is that there is no answer, that is, the answer is the search itself, the question itself, the book itself.”
Such a blind spot is found in Henry James’ Portrait of A Lady with its “decisive ambiguity”, why does Isabel Archer return to her husband? In Moby Dick what does the whale represent, in Kafka’s The Trial what is Josef K arrested for, and is he guilty or innocent? Cercas celebrates that
“the mission of novels does not consist of answering questions but of formulating them in the most complex way possible.”
The Blind Spot has many pleasures, from Cercas’s harrying style where he defines a phrase but then immediately offers a more detailed definition; his rhetorical openings to sentences, “If postmodernity starts with Borges…”, which keep the reader gripped to the personal perspective. In asking what is a committed writer Cercas recalls his youthful antipathy to Jean-Paul Sartre: “like any young or aspiring writer, at that time, I was struggling to construct my own tradition.” In answering the question and drifting into personal memories of himself as a youthful writer, Cercas discusses not only Sartre but also J.M. Coetzee and Kenzaburo Oe. That international range is another pleasure as is the opportunity to discover Cercas’s own tradition, he brings a Spanish-language perspective to the history of the novel. There is a wonderful discussion (or introduction to) of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Time of the Hero.
In valuing the complexity and ambiguity of the novel Cercas offers a new perspective on its history, and The Blind Spot brings that history up to date with David Foster Wallace, “postmodern irony has become our habitat,” and asks if “Karl Ove Knausgaard’s admirable autobiographical cycle, is or isn’t a novel.” The Blind Spot developed from lectures Cercas gave at Oxford University, it is both scholarly and accessible, driven by Cercas’s enthusiasm, and provoking, for like the novel form itself Cercas’s worrying away at defining its possibilities is infinitely entertaining.
Any Cop?: Intelligent, refreshing and a bracing look at what is a novel, what lies at the core of some of the great novels and with just enough of Cercas’s autobiographical thoughts to point you towards reading his own novels.