Dublinesca, by Enrique Vila-Matas
This book was recently published in English as Dublinesque.
I didn’t think much of this book, and the only reason I’m going to write about it a little is that certain comments about the role of the English language in the main character’s imagination (and in Spanish intellectual circles more generally, maybe) caught my attention.
The main character is obsessed with making ‘el salto inglés’, an “English leap” or perhaps leap into the English language. He cannot speak a word of English, we are reminded about a dozen times. And yet, he begins to see a translation of himself into a new place and tongue as his chance for redemption, now that his career as a literary editor has juddered to a halt.
There is no mention of Catalan or Irish, surprisingly for a book that takes place in Barcelona and Dublin only. The assembled editors and writers at one point take offence at a Spanish waiter in Ireland who speaks English with too natural an accent.
Later on in the book, Riba (the main character) dreams an encounter with a ghost:
— If you’re there, knock three times.
Enter Ghost. Maybe this obsession only began as a way for him to feel closer to the first person, to this initial good man who stayed hidden behind his own backlist.
Of course we are all aware that ghosts belong only to our memories, they almost never arrive from far-off lands or outer space. They are our lodgers.
— The red suitcase?
— Me, I don’t travel, says the ghost. — I’m just trying to get born. And to learn English, that’s the thing I need.
I won’t give too much explanation for the other parts, but this tongue-in-cheek staging of a lack of a language occurs repeatedly in the course of the novel.
On the other hand, the author clearly likes to show that he is adept in English, quoting Ulysses and other books whenever necessary (e.g. when nothing interesting is happening in the actual story). I wondered a bit about the morality of this, what impression it gives of the narrative voice, which is at other times using the fact that Riba is so much less able with English as a stick to beat him with, or at least gently prod.
To me at least, it made a bad impression, but also it made me consider to what extent I’ve been responsible for similar mocking or patronising code-switches in my own writing.
This book, then, is a solid testament (for all that it tries not to take itself too seriously) to the Barcelona love affair with France coming round to London and New York and fluency in English, something that has certainly fuelled my employment history recently.
I’ve read several books set in Barcelona recently: the serious and potent Coto Vedado by Juan Goytisolo, the hilarious Sin noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza, and the slacker comedy/ noir-parody of Lo mejor que le puede pasar a un cruasan. So I was quite pleased when I realised that most of this book was going to take place in Barcelona, rather than Ireland, as the protagonist recruits various friends to accompany him to Dublin for Bloomsday. At first. But, and although this is clearly not what the book is ‘about’, while reading I was struck by the complete lack of a sense of place until they arrive in Ireland, and once there the locations are mostly determined by retreading the routes of Joyce’s book.
I didn’t realise that intertextuality meant that to produce ‘good writing’ it’s enough to hitch your wagon to another book which the intended reader is surely going to love.
Another aspect of it that I found very trying was the protagonist’s desire to hold a wake for the ‘Gutenburg Galaxy’, to mark the close of the print era. This was probably meant to be lightly mocking this millenarian-plus-ten years dramatising of the fate of the physical book in the face of Kindle, blogging, Amazon, demographic change, etc etc. But mocking or self-satirising or not, I just couldn’t bring myself to give a shit, and I suspect that most people outside the world of publishing would agree with me.
In sum: as a cultural document relevant to this blog’s remit and to my life more generally, interesting. As a novel, a waste of time.
I often think of Mao II by Don Delillo as the apotheosis of what you might call ‘writer porn’, porn in disguise for people who want to be writers. It’s the only book of Delillo’s I’ve liked so far, actually. It’s full of swooping depictions of the writer-as-terrorist, dragging the read along from climax to burnout to climax again.
Dublinesca is, in complement to this, a kind of ‘writerly massage’, for anyone involved in publishing, reviewing, editing and writing. There’s nothing exhilarating about it, just a gentle stimulating of the ego for people who spend all their time with other writers and publishers or wishing they were.
Final word from the author (then feel free to make up your own mind):
Only someone such as Walter, who sees everything from without and who is in possession of a special sensibility, could understand how much we ought to cry, every time we see a writer.