Two days ago I spoke of “Mirages of the Mind” not featuring on many highlight lists for 2015, and the story continues, my favourite translated book for 2015 has had scant attention when the lists of others are perused. Why? I have no idea. As a lover of art, literature that pushes boundaries, books that demand to be read, books that change your mood, force you to become aware of your surroundings, think of your roller-coaster of emotions. This novel has it all, and yes I may be an unashamed Enrique Vila-Matas fan, that doesn’t mean I over rate his works (for example his other book released this year, in English, “A Brief History of Portable Literature” didn’t make it onto my top 12 list so I’m not extremely biased).
Every five years in Kassel, Germany, the documenta exhibition of modern and contemporary art takes place. The concept came to life in 1955 as an attempt to bring post-war Germany up to speed with modern art, after the banishment and repression of the cultural fringe during the Second World War. In 2012 dOCUMENTA 13 had Carolyn Christov-Bajargiev as the artistic director and curator and was based on the theme “Collapse and Recovery”.
As part of the dOCUMENTA13 exhibition a number of writers were invited to participate as “writers in residence” where they were housed in a Chinese restaurant, so customers and staff could watch them “write’, observe them “creating”.
Our book “The Illogic of Kassel” opens with our author, and protagonist, Enrique Vila-Matas, being invited out to dinner by a Maria Boston, dinner is something he never does, to meet an Irish couple the McGuffins. But a McGuffin is a trap, something to hook the reader (or viewer of a film) in, a devise which has little to do with the plot, but allows the story to advance. Of course Vila-Matas is aware of the trap, however he attends the dinner anyway:
My inveterate habit of writing a chronicle every time I get invited to a strange place to do something weird (over time I’ve realized that all places actually seem strange to me), I had the impression I was once again living through the beginning of a journey that could end up turning into a written tale, in which, as was customary, I would combine perplexity and my suspended life to describe the world as an absurd place arrived at by way of a very extravagant invitation.
We are about to enter Enrique Vila-Matas’ journey to Kassel and his role in dOCUMENTA 13 as a writer in residence at the Dschingis Khan Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Kassel. He is to be an avant-garde instillation in a leading avant-garde event. Immediately I am online, researching dOCUMENTA 13, and in fact Enrique Vila-Matas was a participant, a “writer in residence”, this is autobiography, but as readers of Vila-Matas would know it is also fiction, the world where homage to literature is always hovering on the outskirts, where the act of creation is central to the theme. As the event draws closer we see Vila-Matas’ anxiety and uncertainty increase:
Climbing into my taxi with my suitcase as quickly as possible, I looked like I was skipping town. Maybe I was the only citizen who was leaving. I was sure there was more to life than the nation; after all, I was travelling to the very center of the contemporary avant-garde, I was going to Kassel, via Frankfurt, probably to look for the mystery of the universe and to be initiated into the poetry of an unknown algebra, and also to try and find an oblique clock and a Chinese restaurant and, of course, to try and find a home along the way.
Whilst this work could be seen as a collection of our writer’s journals and experiences, or even a tour through the exhibition itself, it is so much more. The depth of art meditation, the looping of life affirming moments through repetition on the theme of “collapse and recovery”, the definition of ones own space. Before commencing his “writer in residence” engagement our narrator takes in a number of performances as dOCUMENTA 13, including “Study for Strings” held on the same train platform where Jews were shipped to concentration camps.
I observed that for the first time in my whole life it wasn’t fun to feel as though I were inside someone else’s novel, in this case a book by Robert Walser. Although it was poetic to think that, as in The Walk, it was late and everything was getting dark, it nevertheless seemed more appropriate for this to be experienced by whoever wrote it, in other words by Walser, and not me. And yet it was unsettling to see that what was happening to me was exactly what happened to the happy narrator in that book: it got dark, and I suddenly thought it better to stop walking. Usually I was already at home when darkness fell, so it followed that my melancholy there in Kassel was in fact similar to Walser’s.
Vila-Matas is well known for his extensive references to other writers, to other bodies of literature, in his novel “Dublinesque” our protagonist is Riba, a failed publisher who arranges for three writers to accompany him to Dublin, where on Bloomsday he plans a funeral for the Gutenberg era, in the same cemetery where Paddy Dignam was buried in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. The death of the Guttenberg age being the demise of print, the rise of the digital era and the death of “true” readers.
“The Illogic of Kassel” also features numerous references to other writers, to other works as well as including interpretation on the avant-garde works he views during his time in Kassel. His conversations, meetings, slow walks, all give Vila-Matas the room to ruminate on art and life and literature:
We talked about the difficulty Spaniards had accepting art without a message, accepting literature without the necessarily humanist touch or a communist dimension. Spanish realist literature, Chus said, was pre-Manet, that’s why she’d left the country, really, she couldn’t take it anymore; the economic crisis had served as an excuse to revive the same old, early twentieth-century naturalism. What obstinacy, insisting on reproducing what already exists!
As we follow Vila-Matas through his time in Kassel, his mood changes from joyous in the mornings and dark and drained in the evenings to a fully joyous state. The vivid descriptions and his shift in moods, due to simple things like a walk, or the catch of the breeze on his neck, or observing a pile of compost installed as art, immerse the reader in his world. You become a traveller with the writer, as I recently debated on Twitter, this is a book which demands to be read in open spaces, in unexplored spaces, in new realms, and you cannot help but be pulled by the writer’s magnetism into a different space yourself. As our writer becomes one with Kassel, he ends up with a conundrum; “to get out of Europe I would have to get out of the forest, but to get out of the forest I’d have to get out of Europe”, although a citizen of Europe he’s trapped.
His engagement also includes a lecture booking, a talk to no-one, so besides grappling with the concept of turning up to a Chinese restaurant everyday to write and be observed, he also juggles the concept of having to give a lecture, to nobody, but about what?
This is another wonderful celebration of the written word by Vila-Matas, where the lines between fiction, realism and avant-garde are constantly blurred, where fantasy and reality are presented to alter the reader’s moods. A writer where you could simply explore all the links to other writers and be kept busy for years on end, homage to literature and the art of writing:
I remembered Chesterton said that there was one thing that gave radiance to everything. It was the idea of something around the corner. Perhaps it is this desire for something more that propels us to seek the new, to believe something exists that can still be distinct, unseen, special, something different, around the most unexpected corner; that’s what some of us have spent our whole lives wanting to be avant-garde, because it is our way of believing that in the world, or maybe beyond it, out beyond the poor world, there might be something we’ve never seen before. And because of this, some of us reject the repetition of what has been done before; we hate them telling us the same as always, trying to make us know things all over again that we know so much about already; we loath the realist and the rustic, or the rustic and the realist, who think the task of the writer is to reproduce, copy, imitate reality, as if in its chaotic evolution, it monstrous complexity, reality could be capture and narrated. We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth, when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality; we curse those who prefer to ignore risk, just because they are afraid of loneliness and getting it wrong; we scorn those who don’t understand that the greatness of a writer lies in his promise, guaranteed in advance, of failure; we love those who swear that art lies solely in this attempt.
In my mind a certain contender of the new Man Booker International Prize and the US based Best Translated Book Award.