If the gate-keepers of English language fiction have their way, postmodern literature will soon go the way of jazz fusion and the Hula Hoop. We live in an age of confessional realism, marvelling at the stories of writers from nations and identities that have hitherto been unpublished. We might doubt the truth of their confessions, we might dress those confessions up in the costumes of superheroes. But there’s little time to consider the construction and mechanism of the confessional – the nature of the strange collisions of letters and words that allow a writer to create voices and pitch them into readers’ imaginations.
So all hail the protean efforts of the independent publisher New Directions to refresh thirsty monolingual Anglos with translations of one of the most entertaining philosophical fabulists still writing today. Since the early 1970s, the Barcelonan Enrique Vila-Matas has been chronicling the lives of hapless souls infected with an inability to engage innocently with language. Vila-Matas’s heroes are voracious readers, if not overwhelmed by the weight of all the writing that has preceded them, then at least conscious of their precursors – Borges, Bolaño and Beckett. They are publishers, as in his 2010 novel Dublinesque, who are haunted by the ghosts of writers, writers drowned by words. His 2000 Bartleby & Co. is a book of footnotes without a text, filled with anecdotes about painters who don’t paint, writers who don’t write, artists who, like Melville’s refusenik of a copyist, would ‘prefer not to’.
The hero of Mac’s Problem is a sixty-year-old man from Barcelona whose construction company has suddenly gone bust. To fill the yawning gap in his days, he decides to begin a diary. Every day he writes in a notebook, fills it with notes on his neighbourhood walks, his drinks in its bars, his chance conversations. Then, he types up the diary entry on a computer, prints a copy, edits, and reprints, to the intense uninterest of his wife. Just like a novelist.
And yet, Mac insists, he is not writing a novel. At most, he contemplates rewriting the most unsuccessful novel of the most successful writer of his neighbourhood, Sánchez. Sánchez’s novel, titled Walter’s Problem, tells the story of a famous ventriloquist who flees Lisbon after a final performance in which he confesses to killing a barber from Seville who has stolen the woman he loved. Each chapter, according to Mac, is written in the style of a different author, from Borges to Hemingway to Malamud – a work of ventriloquism, whose magic is marred by odd passages that Mac credits to either drink or temporary insanity.
Ventriloquism, the throwing of voices, is not a new subject for Vila-Matas. In ‘Sea Swell’, the shaggiest in the wild selection of short stories published a few years earlier under the title Vampire in Love, the narrator, as Vila-Matas did in his youth, finds himself at a supper at the Parisian apartment of the writer Marguerite Duras, auditioning for the chance to live in her attic. Introduced by his friend Andrés, the nervous young writer has fortified himself with two or three amphetamines that have rendered him entirely incapable of speech. Andrés jumps to his rescue, not only explaining that his friend is upset because he has just left the only draft of his novel in a taxi, but proceeding to recount the plot of the lost novel – the story of a ventriloquist who flees Lisbon after murdering, with the sharpened tip of a sun umbrella from Java, the Sevillian barber who stole the heart of the woman he loved … in short, the plot that jumps from the mouth of Sanchez into Walter’s, and later into Mac’s Problem. (Although, in a piece of perhaps accidental ventriloquism, the excellent translator Margaret Jull Costa metamorphoses the murderous ‘sun umbrella from Java’, ‘la sombrilla de Java’, into ‘a Javanese sunshade’ in the novel.)
Whose story is it anyway? Are all writers ventriloquists, if not copyists and vampires, feasting on the ink of all the books they have read? These are the questions that Vila-Matas asks us to ponder as we read not only ‘Sea Swell’ and its accompanying stories, but Mac’s Problem. Sure enough, Mac eventually confesses he is not the owner of a bankrupt construction company – when, after all, would he have had the time for such intimate acquaintance with literature – but a lawyer who has been suddenly cashiered for drunkenness and incompetence. Sánchez may or may not be the lover of Mac’s wife, Carmen. There may or may not be a murder at the end of the tunnel, with or without an untranslatable object from Indonesia. And the non-novel that is a diary might be a novel after all, written by the master ventriloquist himself: Vila-Matas.
Reviewed by Jonathan Levi
Vampire in Love
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Published by New Directions (2016, 2019)
Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.
Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter bookshop.org page.
Jonathan Levi is an American writer and academic living in Rome. He co-founded Granta and writes short stories, essays, plays, opera libretti and novels, including A Guide for the Perplexed and Septimania.
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of THE HOUSE ON THE HILL and THE MOON AND THE BONFIRES by Cesare Pavese
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of THE BLESSED RITA by Tommy Wieringa
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS by Zsófia Bán
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of IN PRAISE OF WEAKNESS by Alexandre Jollien
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of 18 by Pauls Bankovskis
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of EMPIRE V by Victor Pelevin
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of SOMETHING WRITTEN by Emanuele Trevi
Read Jonathan Levi’s #RivetingReview of THE POPE’S DAUGHTER by Dario Fo