Inventive, playful, and moving, Vila-Matas’s second book to be translated into English is an amazing accomplishment, expanding the idea of what qualifies as a “novel” while also serving as a sort of manifesto for literature. The book’s main theme is laid out in its opening paragraph, which is a somewhat veiled reference to Vila-Matas’s earlier book Bartleby & Co.: “At the end of the twentieth century, the young Montano, who had just published his dangerous novel about the curious case of writers who give up writing, got caught in the net of his own fiction and, despite his compulsive tendency towards writing, suffered a complete block, paralysis, a tragic inability to write.” On a trip to Nantes to visit his son Montano, the narrator starts obsessing about his own “literature-sickness,” which he eventually terms Montano’s Malady. Unable to think about anything but literature and his sense that modern man is killing literature, the narrator does anything he can to uncover a “cure,” eventually finding relief by having sex with his wife at the end of part one. This is where the book really starts to get interesting . . . The second part of the book invalidates all that came before, explaining that it was a false-diary, a new novella by the author, who is a famous Spanish writer. This second part—a “dictionary” of authors who wrote famous diaries—gives way to a lecture the narrator give in Budapest on the diary as literature.
Throughout these formal and stylistic changes the basic points of the author’s story remain—his trip to Nantes, to Buenos Aires, his friend/rival Tongoy (who looks like a vampire), and his strained relationship with his wife. As with Bartelby & Co., underlying the narrator’s erudition and literature-obsession is a well of loneliness, a void that reading and writing tries to fill. And in the case of this novel, the narrator’s obsession and search for a cure to his “malady” is spawned by the growing sense that literature itself is on its deathbed, under attack by “cretins, lousy, dead writers cum civil servants.” These are “people who copy what has been done before and lack any literary (though not financial) ambition,” constituting a “plague even more pernicious than the plague of publishing directors working away enthusiastically against the literary.”
The thing that saves this book from becoming a screed against people who watch too much TV and laugh at dumb jokes is the voice of Vila-Matas’s narrator. Warm, funny, self-effacing, obsessed, and a tad paranoid, the reader is sucked into his world after only a couple of pages, quickly growing to sympathize with this curious figure. Similar to Marcel Benabou’s Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, this title will live on for years as a high-water mark of literary creativity.
by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne
235 pp., $14.95 (pb)
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