Mitja Čander: Slepec (Blind Man)
Our hero/narrator is not a blind man but, because of damage to his optic nerve when he was born, he has very poor sight and is probably legally blind. He has, however, managed to cope with life. At school, he did very well, helped by his teachers and fellow pupils. In life, he is helped by various people. He copes by sticking to the same geographical areas. Like the author he is a chess enthusiast and, by profession, a book editor. He can play chess very well with a normal board, i.e. he does not used one of those boards specially adapted for blind people; indeed, he finds them cumbersome. He reads with special lenses.
His wife is, at times mildly critical as she has to work (as a translator) and do the housework. He does go shopping but his wife feels he is taken advantage of, for example when he comes home with rotten lemons. She is now pregnant which might pose more problems.
He does not like to be considered disabled so avoids that label as far as possible. When he gives a talk at the Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired, it is suggested he should apply for the allowance given to blind people. He is initially opposed but, with the baby expected and with the persuasion of his doctor, he does and he is turned down. He is urged to appeal the decision.
As part of his job, he has to visit the mayor of a town outside the capital. His publishing house is publishing an edition of the collected poems of a great poet. It is, in fact, France Prešeren, Slovenia’s greatest poet. He has been in contact with the mayor of the town where Prešeren grew up, not least to see if he can get some money from him to to help with the publication.
He receives a phone call from the mayor, saying that a new political grouping, known as The Front, would like him to speak at their forthcoming conference. He is initially reluctant to do so, being rightly auspicious of all politicians. The Frontists are hardly the worst of the lot. Parties of this sort always advertise themselves as centrists, despite having an unmistakable colouring. However, when the mayor phones back and tells him that they will be contributing €5000 to the poetry book, he slowly changes his mind.
He gives a speech – very short, which goes down well, making a comparison between his blindness and the vision of a political party. This comparison – between physical vision, particularly his impaired sight, and vision in the metaphorical sense – will remain key to this book. However, to his surprise. the new prime minister, representing the Front, wants to speak to him and offers him a job as state secretary for development.
The prime minister had been highly critical of the current political situation: non-functional public services, starting with the health service; corruption at every level; hostility to economic stimulus… To top it all, during the fat-cow years our predecessors did precisely nothing to put anything aside or reduce the debt – quite the opposite, they sent us deeper into debt! He is going to change all this. We won’t be engaging in the kind of whorish politics people have come to expect; ours will be a new politics! Of course, most of us have seen this sort of thing in our own countries and presumably have a healthy degree of scepticism towards it.
Our hero plans to decline but then accepts (without discussing it with his pregnant wife). One of his first tasks will be to accompany the prime minister to the old city. Places tend not to be named in this book though I am guessing that this old city is, at least in part, Maribor. As they set off (to watch a football match) his wife goes into labour. The prime minister is ambitious. He wants the team to do well in the European Champions League and even for Slovenia to make a bid to host the World Cup, perhaps with neighbouring countries.
Our hero gets involved in his activities, virtually ignoring his wife and child. However, it becomes clear to us that it is virtually all political bullshit. We all blathered on about ethics. It had become a stage prop, the same way critical thinking had become a prop. Even he realises that it is a waste of time and resigns but, in doing so, makes a new proposal – Slovenia 2100, a project to develop a future plan for the country. The prime minister accepts, he is put in charge and here we go again. The press comments clearly, he has been assigned the role of great visionary, but it will more likely be that of court jester, whose facial contortions are meant to turn our eyes from incompetent statecraft and actual court scheming. The title of this article is Blind Man’s Bluff.
However, while we are following his political activities – roads without cars, precise astrology charts for all future inhabitants of Slovenia up to the year 3000 – we are also seeing how he copes – and all too often does not cope – as a man with poor sight. We see him bumping into things, getting lost when going to unfamiliar surroundings (particularly Mexico City) and even inadvertently locking himself in, in his own flat. Čander is both mildly mocking but also clearly sympathetic to his plight and clearly using his poor vision as a symbol for the poor vision of the prime minster and the political system in Slovenia (though, as mentioned, it could be virtually any country in the world).
Of course it all goes wrong. A Banksy-style painting, a vicious press, demonstrations, lack of funds and a project which seems to lack focus all pile on, leaving him adrift and lost.
So what conclusions can we draw? Firstly, politicians the world over are all too often concerned with their greater glory and not, despite their claims helping the people. Slovenia seems to be no different from anywhere else in this respect. Secondly, know your limitations. Our hero was very much in his comfort zone with his job as an editor, sticking to places he knew well and doing much of the same things all the time. Once he is outside that zone, we see him struggling with his sight, particularly but certainly not only in Mexico City as well as dealing with the day-to-day business of his project.
The third, related, conclusion is do not be too ambitious. Most of us have some ambition to do greater things and sometimes we are able to do so, but sometimes, as with our hero, we fall flat on our face. Stick to what you are good at. We cannot all be prime minister. Fourthly, cherish your family. They may end up being all that you have.
Čander is satirising his country, as we can see with some of the remarks his characters make: the entire country, starting with the capital itself, is nothing but yokels. A mental septic tank and The literary scene, my friend, is in fact dreadfully dull. If you had stayed, you’d be rotting away, believe me. He mocks the government – national and local, the literary scene, modern art, the press, overweening ambition and a country trying to make itself seem bigger and more important than it is.
However, what makes this book more interesting than the standard satire on national failings is the perspective of a man with poor vision. Čander uses this both as a symbol for overall, metaphorical vision (and its ultimate severe limitations) as well as showing a man struggling outside his comfort zone because of his poor sight, a symbol for not trying to do more than you are capable of. As he says at the end I see everything. However, as the old saying has it, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
First published in 2019 by Litera
First published in English in 2021 by Istros
Translated by Rawley Grau