A review of The Blind Rider by Juan Goytisolo

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The Blind Rider
by Juan Goytisolo 
Serpent’s Tail, October 2005, ISBN 978-1852428631, 119 pages

Even if Juan Goytisolo, certainly Spain’s finest and most formidable living writer, had not proclaimed The Blind Rider to be his last novel, one might have guessed as much. For it has the feel of being some kind of summation or final reckoning. The novel explores the consciousness of an elderly man on the verge of death and one particular reflection, as he looks back on his life and the changes wrought by history, provides an explanation for the novel’s title:

Time was a blind rider nobody could unsaddle. As he galloped, he ravaged all that seemed enduring, transformed landscapes, reduced dreams to ashes. (32)

Throughout, neither the novel’s protagonist nor any others in his life are named; we are told of “his wife” and “his friend the bookseller”, but no proper nouns refer to these people. This strategy is surely deliberate, but Goytisolo’s intention is more difficult to fathom. Perhaps he wants to express what is called here “the equality of the dead which, after death, you won’t be the one to behold”; or maybe the illusion of permanence which we are subject to (in part because we have names) has been eroded by dementia. (We are told of the protagonist at one point that “his past had been abolished: he was no longer himself but a blank page”.) Incidentally, artists, writers and the titles of their works are named: because they will endure, seems to be the message.

We are given a portrait of a man with little time left, who hovers between the realms of life and death. He is unimpressed with the “inhuman species” and “history’s stupid repetitions, its obtuse cruelty” and this endemic, despairing misanthropy is in part political and (on the whole) cogently argued. One theme is that nothing changes: progress is an illusion, our ignorance is constant. In particular, parallels are drawn between the current and recent horrors of Chechnya and the horrors that Tolstoy witnessed when travelling in the Caucasus as a young man.

At one point the man awakens to the sound of a sustained drilling, realizing only some long moments later that he is listening to the “unbridled beating” of his heart. His nightmarish visions allow Goytisolo to create Gnostic formulations that are as provocative and potent as any one might find in Yourcenar:

He suddenly understood what life was: a hole or voracious abyss down which memory plunged. (81)

Towards the end of the novel, whether through hallucination or vision, he seems to hear the voice of God: an indifferent, callous being here called the Great Soulless One (and whether man is an invention of God, or God an invention of man, both are condemned). The Great Soulless One goes on to castigate the human race and maybe Goytisolo himself:

Your species behaves according to the alternate currents of abject submission and the longing to transgress. Would you, for example, have surrendered to an angel’s insipid beauty, without the stunning power of those tough skulls, rough chins, voracious lips, sinewy bodies to which you have yielded throughout your life? (91)

The Blind Rider is a short, intense novel difficult to compare with others in the European canon; there is almost nothing like it. Mr Palomar comes close in intention, perhaps, but The Blind Rider wholly lacks Calvino’s sense of play. It is unrelentingly dark with dread and despair, as serious and unforgiving as Goya’s greatest art.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com