Trans. Katarzyna Okrasko
Seria „Don Kichot i Sancho Pansa”, W.A.B., Warszawa 2015
Samuel Riba, the main protagonist of Dublinesque by Vila‑Matas, is a member of an “increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers”, who “have always been drawn to literature” (p. 5). He is a 60‑year‑old nondrinking alcoholic, a Catalonian of Jewish origin and a person of a melancholy and apocalyptic disposition. His gloomy frame of mind finds its counterpart in the novel’s cityscapes; it is raining here from dawn to dusk, water inundates the streets and persistently hammers against the roofs, as if announcing another Flood. Riba is also an ironic man, for he “understands that in our time the apocalyptic can only be dealt with parodically” (p. 89).
Dublinesque, published recently in Polish translation, is yet another proof that in contemporary Europe there are few writers capable of such skilful balancing between existential reflection, deathly (we will return to this subject later) seriousness, irony and the comic as Vila‑Matas; in this respect he matches Thomas Bernhard.
We meet Samuel Riba in the moment of a personal and professional crisis: after an alcohol‑induced collapse he has a kidney failure, and his wife Celia, irritated with their flagging marriage, retreats into Buddhism and yoga. This also marks the end of his intense travels, invitations to publishers’ congresses, visits to book fairs and fishing for literary talents.
Constantly grumbling about the collapse of the book civilisation and expansion of digital media, Riba himself is addicted to them; his wife calls himhikikomori, a computer autistic. In Vila‑Matas’s novel, the description of the midlife crisis is combined with a meditation on the crisis of the book as a material object. Riba’s laments regard the most profound problems of post‑modern societies, such as the growing barbarity of media culture or commercialisation of the publishing industry (“in our times – he sighs – literature seems to be one great public toilet”, p. 268), but above all what we get here is a sophisticated and subtly humorous reflection about a paradigm shift in the media, a perverse farewell to the dying analogue world.
During a stay in a detox clinic, Riba has a prophetic dream where he strolls the streets of Dublin. Soon afterwards he decides to make an “English leap” in his life: after a long period of interest in Spanish and French literature he turns towards the English‑speaking Irish. Together with three friends, he starts to plan an eccentric journey to Ireland so that they can arrange a solemn funeral of the Gutenberg Galaxy in St Patrick’s Cathedral on 16 June, Bloomsday. As luck would have it, this is also the day of his parents’ wedding anniversary. The 60‑year‑old, rather excessively attached to his mother and father, explains to them that he has to leave in order to present a lecture “about James Joyce’sUlysses, and the Gutenberg constellation giving way to the digital age” (p. 16). The meandering narrative of Dublinesque revolves around two basic themes: burial and descent into Hades. They both allude to the sixth episode ofUlysses; Leopold Bloom goes to the funeral of a man named Paddy Dignam, an honest Dubliner who died from drinking too much. Joyce’s analogies grow into a veritable cabinet of textual mirrors. Vila‑Matas’s narrative is a continuation not only of the Irishman’s groundbreaking novel, but also of Beckett’sMurphyand Philip Larkin’s poem “Dublinesque”. Riba constantly invokes writers he has published (such as Julien Gracq, Claudio Magris, Georges Perec, Carlo Emilio Gaddo, Paul Auster and Robert Walser), and when walking the streets or sitting in bars he meets the doubles of fictional characters and the authors. “Hadn’t he heard of interconnected points in space and time whose topology we might never understand, but between which the so‑called living and the so‑called dead can travel and thus encounter each other?” (p. 159).
Due to the complexity of the narrative,Dublinesque is something much more than just a puzzle for literary scholars; Riba is an irascible bookish man terrified by death, desperately thinking about old age and trying to understand his own life through literature. Like all melancholy people, he has periods of neurotic activity when he does not sleep at all, followed by phases of lethargy, intellectual slumber and depression.
The gesture of abandonment is crucial here. For Samuel Riba is a new incarnation of the protagonists of Vila‑Matas’s previous hybrid book, Bartleby & Co (English translation by Jonathan Dunne, 2004).It starts with a motto borrowed from the French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist Jean de la Bruyère: “The glory or the merit of certain men consists in writing well; that of others consists in not writing.” The book’s narrator, a grotesquely bitter hunchback, diagnoses and then tracks down the “Bartleby syndrome” in the history of literature; he describes writers stricken with the negativity impulse, authors who at some point, like the main protagonist of Melville’s story, say “I would prefer not to” and who “while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become literally paralysed for good” (p. 2).
Riba, although a publisher rather than a writer, belongs to the order of Bartlebyists. After years of publishing work he finally says “I would rather not”, gives up publishing books, stops drinking, and abandons his ambitious project of creating a theory of the novel; even the funeral of the book on Bloomsday ends in failure.
Vila‑Matas is one of the contributors to the remarkable renewal of the novelistic genre now occurring in Spanish‑language literatures; alongside him one could name Javier Marias, the late Roberto Bolaño or Javier Cercas. They are all deeply aware of the tradition on which they build the poetics of their novels and which developed the literary tricks they use. The path towards them leads through Cervantes, Miguel de Unamuno (especially his outstanding, but underappreciated Mist), Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. I mean here the intricate superimposition of authentic events on invented ones, entering the world of fiction by historical figures, a discreet presence of the author’s doubles and afterimages, and finally the belief that literature is eternal repetition and that it is subject to the rhythms of the tides. James Joyce, Samuel Riba’s favourite writer, formulated this belief in the first sentence – quoted by Vila‑Matas – of Finnegans Wake: “Riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…”