A blocked writer sings the praises of literary failure, in this first English translation from a prizewinning Spanish author.
The unnamed narrator is a hunchbacked, lonely clerical worker and hopeful author, unable to follow up his obscure first book, who takes extended sick leave and vacation time to record instances of self-imposed literary “silence” in “a book of footnotes commenting on an invisible text.” Said footnotes cite the stalled careers of J.D. Salinger, Herman Melville (who wrote virtually nothing during his last three decades), Henry Roth (who rediscovered his authorial voice only in old age), Socrates (who committed none of his thoughts to paper), and comparatively lesser-known idlers like Swiss miniaturist Robert Walser and Spain’s Felipe Alfau, among others. The narrator analyzes excuses for not writing: illness, alcohol or drug addiction, madness, lack of inspiration, or, simply, rechanneling one’s energies (e.g., Diderot’s contemporary Joseph Joubert, who distributed all his promising premises throughout a vast diary). He also records such parallel cases as those of artist Marcel Duchamp, who forswore painting because of his passion for chess; Fernando Pessoa’s “heteronym” (i.e., fictional alter ego) the Baron of Teive, whose brilliance was never permitted to flower; and a (doubtless fictional) “cyclist who suffered from mood swings and would sometimes forget to finish a race.” Other explicitly fictional do-nothings include the narrator’s writer friend Maria, hamstrung by her fixation on the anti-narrative techniques of French “New Wave” novelists, and “Paranoid Pérez,” who (in a very funny sequence) claims that Nobel laureate José Saramago has stolen all his best ideas. On and on it goes, quite madly and irresistibly. The irony of course is that in dwelling with such intricate metafictional insistence on the impossibility of writing his second book, the narrator has in fact written it.
A wry, mind-bending delight: Borges and Calvino would have welcomed Vila-Matas as a kinsman.