I made a mistake when I borrowed Javier Cercas’ El punto ciego from the library, wrongly believing it was a volume by Javier Marías. I read the summary—the book gathers together five lectures delivered by the author when he was appointed Weidenfeld Chair of European Literature at St Anne’s College at Oxford in 2015—and I just thought that was the kind of appointment the illustrious Marías is used to receiving. In the prologue a humble Cercas shows himself very surprised to have deserved that honour, seeing himself as a player in a lower league than his predecessors (his admired Mario Vargas Llosa among them). Cercas (b. 1962) became an instant celebrity with his fourth novel, Soldados de Salamina / Soldiers of Salamis (2001), which tells the story based on real-life facts of how a fascist politician saved his life in the middle of the Spanish Civil War thanks to an extraordinary act of human empathy by an anonymous Republican soldier. Cercas retired then from teaching (he was a lecturer in Spanish Literature at the Universitat de Girona), and has so far published eight more novels and received many accolades. The last novel by Cercas I have read, Planeta Award winner Terra Alta (2019)—the first in a crime fiction trilogy—did not particularly impress me, hence my difficulties to connect him with the Weidenfeld Chair. I grant, though, that Soldiers of Salamis is superb.
I have also enjoyed very much El punto ciego, wishing as I read that more writers found the time and energies to discuss their craft. There is a slew of books by professional authors offering notes on their professional experience and advice to aspiring writers (here’s a list of 100 volumes of this kind) but not so many essays by writers on what makes quality novels tick. Reading Cercas I often thought of Stephen King’s splendid On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), a book everyone mentions at the top of their list of best books about the profession. I like it so much that I even pestered King’s agent, trying to have him persuade the author to write a second part… to no avail! Anyway, Cercas’ book is very different, more general literary analysis rather than memoir, perhaps closer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980)—which I have not read—or similar volumes. It is, in short, a series of lessons on fiction, rather than a series of pointers on how to write it.
Cercas considers a limited number of canonical classics (very few by women…) and his own novels—in particular Anatomía de un instante / Anatomy of an instant (2009), on the 1981 failed coup by Tejero—to offer a theorization of the novel that, plainly, suits him. What he calls ‘el punto ciego’ (the blind spot) is the resistance of the ambitious novel to offer closure, though he uses other words: “nada contribuye tanto como el punto ciego a cebar de sentido una novela o relato, a incrementar el volumen de significado que es capaz de generar” (“nothing contributes as much as the blind spot to fatten up the novel or short story, to increase the volume of meaning it can generate”). Cercas does not mean that fiction should be open-ended but that it should contain some fundamental “ambiguity”, which is not the same, he says, as “indefinition”. I know what he means: we return to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights again and again for the conundrum that the whole novel is, and how it resists any easy interpretation. The simpler novels are up for inspection, warts and all, with no ambiguity, just to offer an experience of reading that while pleasing enough is not necessarily fulfilling (this describes Cercas’ own Terra Alta).
Fiction, Cercas claims, need not “proponer nada, no debe transmitir certezas ni dar respuestas ni prescribir soluciones” (“propose anything, must not transmit certainties or give answers or prescribe solutions”) yet, at the same time, he argues, “toda literatura auténtica es literatura comprometida” (“all authentic literature is committed literature”). I hesitate about how to translate ‘comprometida’, tempted to use ‘compromised’, a false friend which, of course, means ‘at risk’. What is quality fiction if not fiction on the constant brink of disaster, though? But I deviate from Cercas’ meaning, which is clear enough, even a bit clichéd: “toda literatura auténtica aspira a cambiar el mundo cambiando la percepción del mundo del lector” (“all authentic literature aspires to altering the world by altering the perception of the world by the reader”)—though perhaps he means “of the reader’s world”, I don’t know. I love it when writers use these high-sounding words, rather than speak of sales and awards and all the accoutrements of literary fame, but then I recall this is a guy with a Planeta under his belt, the most commercialized award in the world and I wonder how he tells himself now that he is a ‘committed’ writer. Perhaps the money has freed him from this and other burdens.
Cercas maintains that fully realist novels have no blind spot, which means that he is praising a type of fiction that refuses to be fully accessible, either by accident (pioneers like Miguel de Cervantes’ El Quijote) or willingly (name your favourite post-modern novel here—Joyce’s Modernist Ulysses is even going too far down that road). At the same time, he warns about a matter we are all aware of: in literature there is no evolution, and in fact most readers (he claims and I agree) are perfectly happy with the modern descendants of 19th century realist fiction. I say the ‘modern descendants’ because if readers were happy with actual 19th century novels then Dickens and company would still be best-selling authors, which is not the case. Cercas points out, quite rightly, that despite the efforts of many Modernist and post-modern authors to shake 19th century novelistic conventions out of their complacency with countless narrative experiments, we read novels for what they say about the human condition, and not for what the authors can do with form. The model Jane Austen used (though she was a writer with more ambiguities than it might seem at first sight) is still good, if not best, for us since it seems that, despite what some experimental authors believe, readers want no narrative frills—just the illusion that the characters exist and that their lives matter.
This is where the novel and I as a reader are parting ways: I find very few current novels that interest me as expressions of human experience. I find now, as I have been noting here repeatedly, memoirs more interesting than novels. In fact, I possibly enjoy them not only because people who choose to narrate their lives usually have interesting trajectories to explore, but also because Cercas’ sense of ambiguity is possibly stronger in memoirs. Just to mention an example, I have just finished reading The Meaning of Mariah Carey (2020) by the artist herself with Michaela Angela Davis. I am not a Lamb, as Carey’s fans are known, and chose the book for the mostly positive reviews and because, as I say, suddenly I find memoirs more appealing than novels—even as fiction. By this I mean that memoirs are interested constructions in which a flesh-and-blood person turns him/herself into a character in a narrative of their own, turning his/her circle into secondary characters. I think Cercas would love The Meaning of Mariah Carey for its constant use of an almost Jamesian ambiguity, so radical that I think I know less about the diva than before I read her memoirs. I’m joking, as you can see, but I found more blind spots in Carey’s odd volume than in all the canonical novels Cercas mentions.
So, you see?, the danger of all literary theories, including Cercas’ on the blind spots that make great novels great, is that they can apply to texts created with no idea of the literary. Yet, if the blind spot is not enough to characterize great fiction, and it’s not a question of experimenting with form but of dealing with singular human experience, then many other types of narrative texts do the same, even reality shows. What makes us admire novelists and not essayists even when novelists are very close to being essayists—as is Cercas’ case—is the power of inventing a simulacrum of human life. The biographer and the auto-biographer also narrate human experience but no matter how solid their narrative skills are, there is something in pure invention that dazzles us.
Cercas and many others may take persons from real life as foundations for their novels but what we enjoy is how they fantasize about them, even preferring their fictional version to the strictly historical. Cercas does more or less say that he was not interested in the three men that never flinched when Tejero came into the Spanish Parliament and his stormtroopers unleashed volley after volley of bullets: he is interested in why they did not flinch. Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez, his Minister of Defence Teniente General Gutiérrez Mellado and Communist opposition leader Santiago Carrillo, Cercas explains, are not in his novel Anatomía de un instante a portrait of the actual historical figures but characters of his own invention.
For me, that is the real blind spot in novels: the elusive difference between the essayist’s power to offer an approximation to reality and the novelist’s power to invent what appears to be real. No novelist, though, seems interested to take a good look into that power, perhaps because it is a mystery and I have this feeling that it is a bit scary, something out of control and impossible to understand. But, then, if writers are not well equipped to explore this mystery of the fictionalizing mind, who is? Just don’t say the word ‘neuroscientists’… Enjoy instead the mystery of great fiction and great writers. And do read Soldiers of Salamis.
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