None So Blind: José Ángel González Sainz

The protagonist of José Ángel González Sainz’s quiet, introspective novel None So Blind is peasant/factory worker, Felipe Díaz Carrión, who has recently retired and moved back to a village, and the plot of land with its crude house that has been in his family for generations. The novel opens with Felipe, carrying an old satchel, walking along an old familiar road. It’s been twenty years since he walked along the road, but it hasn’t changed.

He was relieved when he realized that the road was the same as it had always been. They hadn’t redone anything yet or built anything in the area, and when he walked along that road, walking as if it were in fact the road that were walking through him, he was infused with a strange sense of calm and strange feeling of liberation. It must be that what’s permanent, he said to himself, that what will always be the same no matter how many things change, as his father used to say, or as people said his father used to say, is what actually frees you the most. Things that remain the same speak to you, sustain you, and they do it without ego. Although knowing how to listen to them is something else entirely.

As the story unfolds, we read that Felipe was forced by circumstance to uproot his family twenty years earlier and leave his family home in order to earn a living in a city located in the province of Guipúzcoa, the Basque area of Spain. Felipe had to trade a job in a print shop for chemical factory work, but while he has to make readjustments, he never complains. Yet in spite of the fact Felipe never complains, we feel the culture shock, the unpleasantness of trading the quiet countryside for the urban hell of a tiny flat in a “giant apartment building.”

He would slowly leave behind, one by one, an old, dismal metalworks from which, even in the early morning hours, there issued an incomprehensible screeching; a tire retread shop whose premises he felt from the very beginning were completely disproportionate, with an attached lot, beyond a blackened stucco wall, where he could see loads of large truck tires and little car tires all piled up, and which sometimes emitted a stench of burning rubber–it stank to high heaven, he would say, even though what he breathed inside the factory most days was no better

Felipe’s life is the life of an ordinary man. Twenty years of work with a relentless pattern to life, and not a great deal of thanks for being a good employee, a good husband, a good father. Twenty years in the city have served to alienate Felipe from his eldest son and his wife–both are now radicalized and refer to Felipe as a fascist. When Felipe returns alone to his home village and embraces the fact that nothing has changed, there’s also the silent admission that both his wife, now a publically elected official, and eldest son, now accused of violent politically motivated crimes, have altered beyond recognition.

none so blind

Immutability, political violence and the central question: do the ends justify the means are at the heart of None So Blind, and while this is a simple, rather sad story of a man whose experiences his own family fail to acknowledge, this is also the story of how history repeats itself.  Even though this a quiet, introspective story, there’s an underlying rage and violence here simmering under the surface. While the novel examines, philosophically,  the morality of using violence to further political goals, the author also emphasizes the physical world and the senses, so the sounds and smells of Felipe’s environment are juxtaposed with people’s inability to ‘see’ another opinion.

There’s one scene in which Felipe’s son is screaming in his father’s face. It’s a wonderful scene with Felipe’s unspoken thoughts racing through his head as he realizes that his son sees people not as human beings but as “burdens, obstacles, abstractions.” While I always have difficulty reading about passive characters, here, the author argues that Felipe’s very passivity is born from early exposure to inexplicable, meaningless violence.  Felipe avoids direct confrontation with his wife and his son, and while he’s been ‘too blind’ to see the evidence of his son’s political beliefs, his wife and son are also completely blind to Felipe’s humanity and the reason for his established belief system. While many people tell Felipe that politically, he’s a simpleton and “you just don’t get it,”  in reality, Felipe understands all too well how a family can never recover from violence whether it is introduced by some homicidal maniac or conducted to fit someone else’s political agenda.

It’s the life of human beings, which is sacred, even though you might laugh when I use the word, just as you might laugh if I mentioned honor, other people’s honor and your own honor, and scruples, too, scruples about hurting others, and the humiliation of being hurt, but it doesn’t matter–other people’s honor and scruples about hurting them, as my father, may he rest in peace, used to say, those are the fine lines that give worth to your own freedom and the freedom of others.

Review copy

Translated by Harold Augenbraum and Cecilia Ross

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9 Comments

Filed under Fiction, González Sainz José Ángel

9 responses to “None So Blind: José Ángel González Sainz

  1. Deepika Ramesh

    This sounds like a profound read, and I love all the passages that you have quoted. Thank you for the review.

    • I wanted the main character to react more to his family, but given his history which is finally revealed, then his passivity seems a natural outcome–that or constant rage.

  2. I like the sound of this one very much. Thanks for an enticing review:)

    • It’s another title from Hispa books, based in Madrid, and they appear to have a very decent list so far..

      • Yes… I headed over to their site and am sorely tempted to subscribe. But one subscription per annum (with Pushkin Press) has to be enough for me – I don’t have time to read everything that comes my way as it is. But I do like the sound of this very much anyway, I have fond memories of my time in Basque country – very different to the uni-dimensional reporting we get here in Australia about the separatists – and I’d like to read this one very much. Without having read it, I’m finding that it reminds me of Jose Saramago’s Raised From the Ground, about the peasant experience and how it gave rise to a political consciousness…

  3. Quiet and introspective are two qualities that appeal to me (in fact I’ve just used those very words to describe Dominique Fabre’s The Waitress Was New, a low-key gem). I’ll keep an eye out for this one as well. Hispa books are an interesting outfit, aren’t they? I’ve seen quite a few positive reviews of their titles.

  4. Interesting that in two of the quotes he reflects on what his father used to say. I get the sense that there is something here too about handing down values from father to son, that’s disappearing from the world of the next generation.

  5. Thsi sounds poignant but so tragic. I also hate passive charcaters but it sounds like he has good reasons.

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