Enrique Vila-Matas is a Barcelona-born Spanish writer of some renown. His novels Dublinesque and Mr Bartelby & Co. are the kind of things that feature prominently in “fiction in translation”1 sections in bookshops: I’ve seen them both, but never read them. Vampire in Love is a forthcoming collection of his short stories, translated and selected by Margaret Jull Costa. The title is taken from one of the 19 stories within the collection, and I suppose it does capture the gentle absurdity and focus on human emotions of the pieces as a whole, however a quick Google search reveals that the name is shared with a 2015 Japanese teen romance, which is somewhat unhelpful when doing gentle research.
In English translation, Vila-Matas is known for his novels, and this is the first translation of his short fiction. Jull Costa has selected these pieces from a prolific oeuvre, and they offer a rounded and complex insight into the writer’s central interests.
Vila-Matas is internationalist, this is clear. Many of his works are set in his native Barcelona, but the reader is also taken to South America, Portugal, Paris, with briefer flashes to other places (London, Prague, etc). Concerns are mortality, depression, the point of existence, the point of art. Many pieces are meta-fictional, he plays with narratorial voice and levels of narratorial knowledge, and though sometimes the reader sees the world from a trad first person perspective, elsewhere we’re with a writer writing about others, we’re offered a fictional disconnect, trapped within the mind of someone we are not within. It’s solid postmodern stuff, I suppose, and it regularly reminded me of some of the Roberto Bolaño I’ve read: the twisting of viewpoints, the separation from others when within a big city, the subtle/possible supernatural, the interest in death… I haven’t read any Bolaño for years, to be honest, maybe I just have him on the mind as I had a chat with someone reading 2666 yesterday.
Suicide is a recurring theme in this collection2, rarefied from a more general interest in death that the book boasts from the very start. Dying and creating fiction, observing life from the outside. There is a liminal focus to many of these texts. In more than one (three, I think, possibly more) the protagonist is someone who mainly lives alone, who observes people, follows people, watches but barely interacts, feels/seems invisible but in reality is very present. They are on the edge of society in the same way that many characters are on the edge of death. The first story that really excited me was ‘Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life’, which is about a deeply depressed woman celebrating her 50th birthday around a family who barely care that she exists. She instead wanders around the city with an equally depressed stranger, though he has alcoholic debasement as a means of escape. Throughout the day, Rosa Schwarzer considers killing herself, and her new friend gives her – the only gift anyone presents her with on her birthday – a small bottle of booze containing dissolved cyanide. The day after, back at work as a security guard in an art gallery, she necks the bottle and dissolves into a dreamlike state where forces of life and death argue at her, the figures from paintings that surround her battling over the destination of her soul. This is great, deeply involving and unexpected, and a far more interesting piece than its opening would lead one to believe.
And that’s where Vila-Matas’s strength lies throughout Vampire in Love – in subverting expectations, in stories that move the reader in directions that could never have been predicted. ‘They Should Say Who I Am’ is another highlight, the story of a famous painter surprised by the articulate critique of his work from a crewman of a commercial ship. This, again, moves in narrative arcs that take the reader by surprise, and it is the deft handling of unique plot points that makes Vila-Matas so interesting, these are Kafkaesque pieces, gently poetic whilst narratively engaged.
The other pieces I loved, quickly, were, ‘I’m Not Going To Read Any More E-mails’, about a man clearing his inbox before heading off to suicide; ‘Niño’, about a wealthy man in his 80s finally cutting off his wastrel eldest son, wishing him death during a forthcoming operation (the son is 60ish), but perhaps merely as a way to assuage his own guilt at never having helped his son to achieve independence; and ‘Sea Swell’, a riotously funny story about a young man trying to impress a literary celeb at a dinner, but being too strung out on the amphetamines he took to quell his nervousness to speak.
Stylistically, these stories are pretty standard latter half of the 20th century postmodern stuff: they’re fun, and weighty in a morbid, rather than a scary, way. Vampire in Love contains enough philosophic engagement to avoid dismissal for having too much literary playfulness about its pieces to be considered more than experimental exercises, and it is when Vila-Matas is at his most experimental that he creates the biggest emotional response. Surprise, rather than inevitability, is the tragic note here, which is unfamiliar and a pleasant change.
I really enjoyed the collection, and will definitely look up one of his novels once I’ve cleared a bit of space in my to-read piles (currently four to seven, depending on what you count as a pile).
As a side note, there is a quotation from Paul Auster on the reverse of this copy that is one of the most arrogant, self-obsessed sentences I have ever seen and I will be boycotting that writer for the rest of my life, or until I forget this. I’m not going to repeat it here as reading it twice almost made me vomit and I’m not certain what will happen were I to type it out.
Vampire in Love, though, great fun.
DISCLOSURE: I was sent this book for free by the publishers for review purposes. Open book, open door.
1. Because that’s a genre, isn’t it? ↩