“The funeral march has begun, and it is futile for those of us who remain loyal to the printed page to protest and rage in the midst of our despair.” Samuel Riba, Dublinesque’s depressive and narcissistic protagonist, stumbles upon this and other similarly prophetic sentiments in an online article proclaiming the death of print and the ensuing “disappearance of literary authors.” In the early pages of Dublinesque (Dublinesca), Enrique Vila-Matas’s most recent novel to be translated into English, we learn of Riba’s fearful and forlorn attitude as regards the future of literary publishing:
He dreams of the day when the spell of the best-seller will be broken, making way for the reappearance of the talented reader, and for the terms of the moral contract between author and audience to be reconsidered. He dreams of the day when literary publishers can breathe again, those who live for an active reader, for a reader open enough to buy a book and allow a conscience radically different from his own to appear in his mind. He believes that if talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves: on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies… Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…
Once a successful publisher of important works and great authors, Riba has since closed his Barcelona-based publishing house and finds he has little to look forward to in either his personal or professional affairs. Approaching his sixtieth birthday, he despairs his increasingly solitary milieu, marked as much by his failing marriage and tenuous abstention from alcohol as by his constant lamenting over his lost career. Intrigued by the concept of the hikikomori (a phenomenon prevalent in japan, characterized by individuals, usually male, whom have chosen for themselves a life of extraordinary isolation and social withdrawal), perhaps as an explanation for his own existential malaise, Riba’s own life begins to resemble that of an awkward outcast, marked by an internet addiction that consumes as many as fourteen hours in a single day.
After recalling a “strange, striking dream he’d had in the hospital when he fell seriously ill two years ago,” Riba decides to set about planning a trip to Dublin. The impetuses for this excursion are many, not the least of which is an opportunity to stage a funeral for the age of print and “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” The date Riba sets for this requiem is none other than June 16, the very day on which James Joyce set his Ulysses, and commemorated annually as “Bloomsday.” With plan in place, Riba enlists the company of three writer friends to join him and his venture in the Irish capital.
Vila-Matas, as in his other works already translated from the Spanish, crafted Dublinesque in a meta-fictional, semi-autobiographical fashion. Forever fascinated by the nature of enigmatic authors, Vila-Matas works into the narrative references to authors both living and dead (including Julien Gracq, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Georges Perec, Paul Auster, John Banville, Brendan Behan, Italo Calvino, Rodrigo Fresán and his late friend Roberto Bolaño). Dublinesque is also, in part, an homage to both Joyce and his fellow countryman Samuel Beckett, both of whom loom large in the plot, structure, and thematic essence of the story itself.
Riba’s wife, Celia, a museum employee and recent convert to Buddhism, shares her name with the title character’s lover in Beckett’s Murphy. As well, the rocking chair in which Riba spends much of his time in Dublinesque’s final section is an allusion to the same piece of furniture in which Beckett’s Murphy whiles away many of his days. A character resembling a young Ceckett makes several mysterious appearances and leads Riba to seek out his identity, in hopes of, perhaps discovering that this fellow is the unknown, genius writer for whom Riba has been searching for his entire career. While in Dublin, Riba delves into a Beckett biography by James Knowlson (presumably damned to fame), shortly after remembering the surprise of reading a novel that featured “a character who’s a real person.”
Riba’s fascination with (and seemingly extensive knowledge of) Ulysses figures prominently into the story, as well. Riba makes repeated mention of the modernist novel’s sixth chapter (“Hades”), wherein Leopold Bloom and others attend a funeral for Paddy Dignam. It is during the funeral scene that Bloom encounters the mysterious Macintoshed character, much as Riba espies the young Beckettian man during his requiem for “The Golden Age of Gutenberg.” Vila-Matas was himself one of the founding members of “The Order of Finnegans (La Orden del Finnegans)” (a society comprised of a small number of other Spanish writers “with the sole purpose of venerating James Joyce’s Ulysses”).
Riba’s “remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text” is worked playfully throughout the novel, especially given Vila-Matas’s decision to employ the Joycean and Beckettian allusions that shape the narrative in which Riba lives. “Dublinesque,” the Philip Larkin poem from which the novel draws its name (about a prostitute’s passing funeral), is but another example of the way Vila-Matas incorporates actual literature into his dirge of the forsaken art. Riba, perhaps resulting from his compulsive need to bring the imagery and incidents of that formative dream (or premonition?) into reality, begins to wonder whether his own life has come to resemble not merely a work of fiction, but the entirety of literature’s arcing curve itself, from great heights to pitiable ruination:
Only he—no one else—knows that on the one hand, it’s true, there are those serious slight discomforts, with their monotonous sound, similar to rain, occupying the bitterest side of his days. And on the other, the tiny great events: his private promenade, for example, along the lengths of the bridge linking the almost excessive world of Joyce with Beckett’s more laconic one, and which, in the end, is the main trajectory—as brilliant as it is depressing—of the great literature of recent decades: the one that goes from the richness of one Irishman to the deliberate poverty of the other; from Gutenberg to Google; from the existence of the sacred (Joyce) to the somber era of the disappearance of God (Beckett).
While Riba laments the passing of the print age, with its celebration of and devotion to the duality of the writer/reader relationship, he, like the era for which he mourns, must endure the perils and hardships that inevitably accompany so splendid a fall from grace (his career, his marriage, his health). That Vila-Matas so adeptly created a work of fiction that simultaneously considers the current state of both publishing and literature (as well as the respective roles of author and reader alike), while allowing the novel itself to serve as a comment on the very subject, is nothing short of a dazzling accomplishment. Vila-Matas, under the guise of fiction, seems to make the case for a future in which the importance of good writing and meaningful stories are afforded their due attention, while the relationship between author (or publisher) and reader is enlivened anew and bolstered for posterity.
Enrique Vila-Matas is undoubtedly one of the finest Spanish authors at work today and Dublinesque offers for display his profuse literary talents. With sharp, distinct prose and often unexpected humor, Vila-Matas is indeed a compelling writer. As a complement to the four books already available in English, one hopes that many more of his two dozen novels (as well as his collections of essays) will soon find their way into translation. Vila-Matas’s writing, in addition to providing fantastic stories and striking insights, is consistently amongst the most original work being produced today, and stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the banality and bankruptcy of what all too often now passes as popular literature: “the Gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion.”