TagSpanish Literature Month

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas

NeverParisI like to think I’m over it by now, but sometimes I still have to tell myself: it’s not about the subject matter. That is to say, whether or not the ostensible subject matter of a novel appeals to me is not a reliable indicator of how I’m going to respond to the book. Self-imposed starvation, high school scandals, coppers going off the rails, society parties… They’ve all featured in fiction that rewired my inner universe, because it wasn’t the topic that counted, but the interplay of language, theme and image. Still, if Never Any End to Paris had not been written by Enrique Vila-Matas –had I not trusted him after Dublinesque – I might not have read this book. That would have been a mistake.

Never Any End to Paris is presented as the text of a three-day lecture delivered by Vila-Matas, dealing principally withthe period in the 1970s when he lived in Paris, in a garret owned by the writer Marguerite Duras. Back then, he wanted to live a life like that depicted by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast; and was trying to write his first novel, The Lettered Assassin – a novel with which, Vila-Matas says, he wanted to kill his readers. There’s drily absurd humour to be found in the author’s exploits:

…I was a walking nightmare. I identified youth with despair and despair with the colour black. I dressed in black from head to toe. I bought myself two pairs of glasses, two identical pairs, which I didn’t need at all, I bought them to look more intellectual. And I began smoking a pipe, which I judged (perhaps influenced by photos of Jean-Paul Sartre in the Café de Flore) to look more interesting than taking drags on mere cigarettes. But I only smoked the pipe in public, as I couldn’t afford to spend much money on aromatic tobacco.

(Translation by Anne McLean)

But look beneath these trappings… the real subject of Vila-Matas’ ‘lecture’ is irony, and irony permeates the novel. We see the young Vila-Matas in Paris playing the part of a certain kind of writer; and performing politics more than actually believing in a given position. But then I discover from David Winters’ essay on Never Any End to Paris that Le asesina ilustrada was actually Vila-Matas’ second novel, not his first; so how much of the history here can we really trust?

Then again, asks Vila-Matas, what happens to irony when you see something in real life? What does it even mean to see something in real life, anyway? The author talks about longing to visit New York, then being disappointed with the place, because the reality of it couldn’t live up to his dream. Vila-Matas also describes how he’d seen on film the study where Trotsky was assassinated, then visited it in real life and found the experience unnerving:

I found it hard to disassociate that study from the one that appeared in the fiction of Losey’s film. Even so, I tried not to forget that this was the real place where Trotsky had been assassinated. So – I thought – this is a historic place. I couldn’t think of anything else. I just kept repeating obtusely to myself, this is a historic place.

Again, the imaginary location looms larger than the real one. But what is ‘real’, here? Look closely enough at Never Any End to Paris, and nothing remains solid: there’s no city beyond the descriptions on the page; no narrator beyond the ‘I’ whose voice we accept; no lecture beyond a framing device; no novel beyond that to which we are prepared to give consent. But of course this is true of all novels, and readers consent to the realities of fiction routinely. Vila-Matas’ approach makes us confront both perspectives – the fictional ‘reality’ and the mechanics of the construction – at the same time.

There is never any end to Paris, Vila-Matas assures us – the Paris of his imagination, that is:

Everything ends except Paris, for there is never any end to Paris, it is always with me, it chases me, it is my youth. There can be an end to this summer, it will end. The world can go to ruin, it will be ruined. But to my youth, to Paris, there is never any end. How terrible.

In reality, there is an end even to this Paris: you just close the book. Equally, of course, there is indeed no end to Paris, because it persists in the mind, and will emerge again whenever the book is read.

Elsewhere

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas, tr. Anne McLean (2011), Vintage paperback.

The Transmigration of Bodies: i – names

TransmigrationThe Transmigration of Bodies is the second of Yuri Herrera’s novels to be translated by Lisa Dillman and published by And Other Stories. The first was Signs Preceding the End of the World, one of my very favourite books from last year. Where Signs was a book of borders, Transmigration is more concerned with networks and exchange; but that same sense of hallucinating reality is ever-present. I have three posts aboutthis new book lined up, starting with a few notes on names…

In the first chapter, Herrera’s narrator wakes up, looks out on a city that’s been quietened by the plague, and gets frisky with his neighbour, Three Times Blonde. Throughout all of this, we know him only as a pronoun. It’s only at the end of the chapter, when our man has taken a phone call, that he becomes the Redeemer.

The Redeemer has been called upon by Dolphin Fonseca to retrieve the latter’s son Romeo from another crime family, the Costas, in an exchange. What the Redeemer will be exchanging, he discovers later, is the daughter of the Costa family, Baby Girl.

As you might gather from the above, it’s a rare character in The Transmigration of Bodies who gets to be known by an actual name, rather than a nickname or epithet. “Some sad fuck so much as takes a bite of bread and we got to find a name for it,” thinks the Redeemer. These aliases help to mark the contours of the novel’s world: when the Redeemer answers that call from Dolphin, he is explicitly leaving behind a period (however fleeting) of anonymity and stepping back into the city’s underworld. Baby Girl doesn’t like her nickname; but, when she speaks her real name aloud, we’re not told what it is – she’s as bound by the alias as she is by social and familial forces.

The nicknames also slide into a more general euphemistic language that sets the terms of engagement with the crime world:

Banished man alias Mennonite. Broken man alias Redeemer. Lonely old soul alias Light of my life. Ravaged woman alias Wonder where she’s gone. Get revenge alias Get even. Truly fucked alias Not to worry. Contempt alias Nobody remembers him. Scared shitless alias Didn’t see a thing. Scared shitless alias Doing just fine. Some sad fuck alias Chip off the old block. Just what I was hoping for alias You won’t get away with this. Housebroken words alias Nothing but truth.

There are some things that can only be done under an alias. And there are some things you don’t say about them, at least not directly.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Transmigration of Bodies (2013) by Yuri Herrera, tr. Lisa Dillman (2016), And Other Stories paperback

From the Archives: Spanish Lit

Today, for Spanish Lit Month, a look back through my archives. This is a list of all my reviews of books translated from the languages of Spain, in reverse order of posting. It’s not a huge number (in the early years of this blog, I didn’t read many translations), but I wanted to link to everything in one place. So – positive or negative, short or long – it’s all here. Just to clarify a few things: all books are translated from Spanish unless otherwise indicated; some links go to external websites; and anything labelled ‘note’ is a few lineswithin a longer round-up post.

Spanish Lit Month: The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño

Skating RinkJuly is Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. I’ve never joined in properly before; but I have quite a few unread Spanish-language books on the shelves (and the odd Catalan one), so now is the time. My first book for the month plugs a gap in my recent reading history, and takes me to a novelist’s beginnings…

When I started this blog in 2009, Roberto Bolaño was one of the writers whose names I kept coming across – but I never read him. Partly this was because, at that time I wasn’t yet making a point of reading translations; and partly because the book I heard most about – 2666 – was just too long for me to want to take a punt. My reading took me off in other directions, and Bolaño became another author whose work I’d glimpse occasionally on bookshop shelves and then wonder about. But I did acquire a few volumes over the years, ready for when the time was right. When I came across my copy of The Skating Rink the other week, it seemed as good a time as any.

I didn’t even realise when I started that this was Bolaño’s first published novel. Since I found that out, it has become unusually difficult not to let it colour my response. I’m conscious that what I’ve read is only the start of something, and that I don’t know how Bolaño’s career developed. This novel feels to me like a stepping stone rather than an end in itself; but I don’t have the context to know what is significant in terms of Bolaño’s work as a whole.

The Skating Rink is set in a Costa Brava town identified only as Z, and has three first-person narrators. One is Enric Rosquelles, a civil servant who becomes infatuated with a champion ice skater named Nuria Martí, and siphons off public funds to build her a secret rink in an old mansion at the edge of town. The second narrator is Remo Morán, a-writer-turned-businessman in an occasional relationship with Nuria. Finally, there’s Gaspar Heredia, a poet and old associate of Morán’s who takes a job at his campsite and becomes acquainted with two vagrants, a knife-carrying young woman and an ageing opera singer, who have their own interest in the palace. The three narrators rotate in strict order, each testimony presented as a single, dense paragraph:

Only once had I ever heard anyone sigh like that: a hard, harsh sigh, alive in every hair, and the mere memory of it made me feel ill. I squatted between the cases until all I could hear was the generator and my own uneven breathing. I chose not to move for a long time. When I noticed that one of my legs was becoming seriously numb, I began the retreat; it was all I could do not to panic and go running down the mansion’s twisting corridors. Surprisingly I found my way out without the slightest difficulty. The front door was locked. I jumped out a window. Once in the garden, I didn’t even try to open the iron gate; without a second thought I scaled the wall as if my life depended on it…

(Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews.)

The effect of this is that we perceive events building layer by layer, sometimes digressing, and often without a clear sense of where things might be heading. We do know from early on in the novel that there’s going to be a murder, but not whose. Actually The Skating Rink functions almost like an inverted murder mystery: the crime doesn’t come until close to novel’s end, and it’s not so much solved as admitted. The tension ramps up as we reach the fateful moment; but there isn’t the conventional release of finding out ‘what happened’, more a kind of resigned understanding. Solving the murder might explain something of what we’ve read, but it doesn’t fundamentally change it. The ending of The Skating Rink is less a victory for the reader than a truce.

Based on this experience, I think I would like to read more Bolaño, and it could be that one of the higher-profile books is the way to go after all. Maybe this is one literary career where it helps to know the end point before you look backwards.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Skating Rink (1993) by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Chris Andrews (2009), Picador paperback

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