The Parable of the Blind

A couple of years ago I read Gert Hofmann’s The Film Explainer, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 1995, during German Literature Month, an experience which left me intrigued to explore his work further. As luck would have it, I came across a copy of The Parable of the Blind earlier this year (Hofmann’s work is largely out of print – though, unknown to me, this particular novel was reprinted by Verba Mundi in March). The novel, translated by poet Christopher Middleton (one of three Hofmann novels he translated), not only shares its title with that of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder but seeks to describe the origins of that particular artwork, narrated entirely by the blind men who have been assembled by Bruegel to model for him.

As the novel opens the blind men are awakened by a knocking. The communal voice which narrates the novel describes a dream of burial:

“Good, it’s over now, we say, and we’ve been buried. First as far as others are concerned, then as far as we ourselves are. We’re beginning to be forgotten.”

The knocking is a summoning back to existence in the world –a world largely confirmed by sight. The initial conversation suggests that the blind men remember little of where they are or why. Once awake they must confirm their own presence as well as that of their comrades:

“Then we pass our hands over our bodies. Yes, we’re still the same people as yesterday.”

Their daily returning to being echoes the work of the painter’s more permanent creation and Hofmann is clearly interested in the irony of the painting which its models cannot see. Hofmann presents the world entirely from their viewpoint, one which is excessively focussed on dialogue. When actions do occur, for example when a child touches their faces, only what they experience is described:

“Then through the morning breeze the child’s warm hand comes and strokes our cheeks, right and left, and creeps into our ears.”

This scene also illustrates the curiosity of the villagers and the vulnerability of the blind men. After they are fed they are taken to relieve themselves, but the promised privacy is a deception:

“But when we’re crouching in the cold and tickly grass we sense that we’re not alone at all, there’s breathing and gasping and giggling in front of us and behind us.”

Throughout the novel they remain reliant on others to lead them, not always honestly or successfully, to the painter. That help is rarely offered and they must first of all discover if there is any other person there:

“But probably there’s nobody there, it’s the same as ever.”

Bruegel is famed for his powers of observation with this particular painting often being cited as evidence, not only in the detail of the clothing but in the way in which each of the men’s blindness can be seen to have its own cause. In the novel, however, the men tell the villagers a common story:

“One evening in the summertime when it was very hot they were sitting under a cherry tree and birds came. The birds sat in their shoulders and pecked their eyes out.”

The blind men themselves know this isn’t the case – one of their number, for example (Slit Man) has had his eyes removed as a punishment – yet they frequently ask if there are crows following them. Bruegel’s accuracy is a refutation of superstition, just as Hofmann’s fiction has often tackled history with a view to seeing accurately in the face of assumed narratives. Bruegel also paints so that his subjects can be seen. When the child tells the blind men that people can’t always be seen he gives this explanation:

“Because one day they die, the child says, then they can’t be seen anymore, and that’s why he paints them. And that’s why he also paints himself, so that he’ll always be seen.”

Yet if blindness is a misfortune, so is sight. Bruegel is tormented by the pictures he must paint:

“More and more often now, since the slaughter at Liege, the pictures are of people dying and dead.”

When the blind men finally arrive he asks for them to be described to him:

“No, I don’t want to look at them, the painter says after hesitating a bit, not yet. The mere sight of people like that had a devastating effect on him in his present state because he at once put himself in their place. He couldn’t see people who’ve been broken without being broken himself.”

The Parable of the Blind is an impressively sustained exercise in limited viewpoint, and also interesting simply in its portrayal of the immortalised but forgotten models of the painting. However, it can also be read as a parable itself, a tortured Pilgrim’s Progress, where we are the blind leading the blind with death hovering above us, shouting our questions into the darkness.

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7 Responses to “The Parable of the Blind”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    How interesting. I love Bruegel the Elder’s work, especially The Hunters in the Snow, another painting that has inspired or appeared in various cultural pieces over the years. Mostly films rather than novels – but even so, the principle is similar. I like what you say about the way in which this novel can be read on a number of different levels, that’s always a good sign.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I know that painting – Bruegal is a wonderful artist. It’s interesting to find a writer imagining the creation of a work of art – but not from the point of view of the artist.

  2. SteveHolt Says:

    Great review! You’ve certainly sold me on tracking down some Hofmann.

    It’s strange but the scene with the blind men defecating unwittingly before an audience was very similar to a scene in a novella I just read, “The Loss” by Vladimir Makanin (also written in the 1980s). I wonder if it’s an old trope or an allusion to a work that I’m unfamiliar with.

    I am really enjoying all of these German Lit Month reviews.

    • 1streading Says:

      I think Hofmann is worth tracking down. I don’t know The Loss (though I have read Makanin’s Baize Covered Table with Decanter) – it wouldn’t surprise me if the image came from an older work. Somebody out there knows!

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    I’ve out conquest by him on my shelf not sure I’ll do it this year round as fancying a change from German lit

    • 1streading Says:

      That one sounds good as well – I think I’ll be on the hunt for his works from now on! (I can see why you might fancy a change – your German Lit Month output has been prodigious!)

  4. German Literature Month VII: Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life Says:

    […] Dance by The Canal 1 Hesse: Demian 1 Hilbig: A Temporary State 1 Hofmann: Parable of the Blind 1 Hoppe: Pigaletta 1 Huch: The Last Summer 1 Jelinek: In the Alps 1 The Piano Teacher […]

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