The Knocker knocks on the barn door and six men stumble around, trying to get up. The novel opens: “On the day when we’re to be painted – yet another new day! – a knocking on the barn door drags us out of our sleep. No, the knocking isn’t inside us, it’s outside, where the other people are.” The six men narrate as “we”, although one of them, Ripolus, is also guide, because he can reportedly see a little. “Ripolus, what can you see? Simply describe for us what you can see?” The answer is usually, “Not much.”
The novel covers the day when these six men are to be painted by Pieter Breughel, “the Painter”, who wants them to follow each other and fall down into a ditch, the image familiar to us as “The Parable of the Blind”, a rural recreation of Matthew XV, 14: “If the Blind lead the Blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
In the painting, the blind men are about to fall. The painting is tense, as the eye follows the chain of men towards the ditch. What we see is about to collapse. Hofmann’s novel is also tense; not because the six narrators may collapse but because the novel as viable form may do so. It doesn’t.
The novel’s frame is this: The six men speak a strangely unified monologue, wandering around the village, on the green, in the woods, eating lunch. Each man has a story about how he came to be blind. As readers, we are never given more information than the six possess nor any hints with which to see out of the monologue; there are times when the six may be the subject of practical jokes – being told they are in a secluded toilet when they may be on the village green – but we don’t laugh, because we don’t know if it’s funny. We don’t see from the outside. We read thoughts and speech. We are blind because we’re stuck like narrative threads in the novel’s mass, just as the blind men seem trapped in the telling of their own story.
This is why worries over the inaccurate presentation of blindness are beside the point. Do blind people feel themselves all over to work out who they are, first thing in the morning, as these do? No. But this is ‘The Parable of the Blind’, and the parables are multiple. Imagine a page with six tiny figures stumbling around in it; they can’t see the perimeter of the page, and they can’t see out into the world. The page is a room, or a village, and we, the reader, are there too, wondering what room, what enclosed world we are in. The six men remember the past. They wonder where they are. They have banal conversations with strangers about food and the weather and which is the best way to go. They argue with each other and nearly fight. Hofmann’s prose is so concentrated and unrelenting that claustrophobia turns to terrible awareness. There is no need to explicate. No need for laboured, “author’s message” moments, because we begin to read everything into the parable; the leaner in description or the more a narrative moves in circles or repetition the greater the force accumulated. How does a book like this pierce through to us, when there was no vivid description of something we recognised, no witty or psychologically fascinating dialogue, no grand sweep of history, no denouement?
One answer is that those very elements begin to seem ornamental to literature’s work, part of which (let’s be reductive!) is to wonder how communication in language might be possible and, if it isn’t, to fail instructively. How can six blind men stumbling around, speak to us? Do they speak for anyone else as well? They are six men in a painting, here made to fall into the ditch over and over for the Painter to make his sketches.
Sight is most often the sense connected to knowledge, as in, “I see it”, “I can’t see round it”, “in this light”, and also the various distinctions between the visible and invisible. Sight is also linked to reason; if we can see it properly, we can be rational about it. These traditions find their dissection in the contemporary philosophies of “the gaze”. In ‘The Parable of the Blind’, it is hearing that relates the realistic details of interaction, that is, speech. Without sight, the most pushy of senses, one of the things the novel does is to bring sound and touch back to a narrative, to embody a world not predicated on the eyes, as Aristotle seemed to think was necessary when he wrote ‘On Sense and Sensible Objects’, “of those who have been deprived of one sense or the other from birth, the blind are more intelligent than the deaf and the dumb.” Hofmann’s novel is a joke on metaphor – which, classically, bridges the inward mental activity to the world of appearances, left in this novel as a swing bridge hanging over the water – making the parable, ‘in this light’, a parable of the parables.
Standing before a painting, we may well ask a work to speak to us, and a number of novelists have taken up the extra-critical task of elaborating this speech or else making up a story – one thinks of a pearl earring – following the irritating trope that we might “walk inside” a painting. Hofmann has taken this thought and actually pushed our faces so far into the oil and brush-strokes that we cannot see back out, and we cannot see within. The prose, inhabiting a world of sound and intuited objects, is spare and clear, like a radio transmission which has been tuned in after an interfering hiss.
Christopher Middleton’s translation is excellent – by no means a given in translations from the German, see Michael Henry Heim’s ruination of Günter Grass’s My Century – in that he replicates this sparse quality in English without falling into a Beckettese, which it might have been easy to do. Middleton is a poet – recommended is his new and selected poems, The Word Pavilion as well as the extraordinary prose pieces in such volumes as Crypto-Topographia – and translator of Canetti (his letters), Robert Walser and Nietzsche. His is not a workman-like translation. Hofmann’s forward-drive is here, the unaccountable tension, the use of sentence on sentence like brick and timber.
The narrator (unusual for being six people and one person simultaneously) often says “probably”, probably we are here, probably there is a man with a stick, probably we are being painted by the Painter. Surface is not given to us for our delight, as in a Quiet novel (Edgar Allen Poe’s term for the mainstream, “official literary culture” of his time, the work he hated and wanted to tear down), but is constantly in doubt – what would otherwise be a world is here only conjecture: “What’s going on? we call. And it’s hard to find the way back. We’re in a dream. Lying in a fresh furrow, in a boundless field, half on the surface, half below ground, clouds probably overhead.”