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Enrique Vila-Matas: Exploradores del abismo [Explorers of the Abyss]

This is not a novel but, rather a collection of stories, on the same theme, namely exploring the abyss. After writing Doctor Pasavento, Vila-Matas felt that he had come to the end of a road with his literary explorations and he was facing an abyss. He decided this would be the title of his next book, without really knowing what it was to be about. He decided to try writing short stories but found that he was writing them as little novels, rather than adapting to the short story form. Indeed, it all started when he was in Prague, visiting the Kubista café which, as happens with Vila-Matas, led him to Kafka and to black and white and to the abyss. His explorers of the abyss all have this desire to be out of here, a phrase taken from Kafka’s The Departure. He himself felt no longer in control of his own work but as if he had inherited someone else’s work and was managing it on his behalf.

The stories do not follow the line we have come to expect for many of his other works. Though there are literary allusions, they are certainly far less frequent, with just one exception. In particular, the stories are, as you might imagine from the title, often quite dark. The first one is quite straightforward. The narrator picks up phrases he hears people using on the 24 bus, which he takes to and from work. One day, he hears a woman behind him talking on her phone. She is clearly meeting someone whom she does now know and gives a description of herself. He finds it odd that she describes herself as neither pretty nor ugly while not mentioning that she was small, wearing grey and had black hair turning to grey. He becomes mildly obsessed with her, even trying to track down a print that reminds him of her.

It is the first longer story where we see the dark side. The story is called Niño which means (male) child. This is the name a famous architect uses for his son, despite the fact that the son is sixty at the start of the story and has four younger siblings. The four younger siblings are everything a parent could want. Niño is not. He has, to all intents and purposes, never worked. He has repeatedly criticised his father, in particular for fathering him. He sponged money off his father all of his life. He has clearly never been happy. For example, many years previously, he had persuaded his father to visit Licancabur Lake, not an easy journey, though the father does enjoy mountaineering, primarily because there is a legend that the souls of all the dead in the world are there. They get there after a struggle and for once both agree. There is really nothing much there. The father will finance him on other expeditions. Niño does take photos and holds exhibitions but the father considers them of poor quality. At the start of the story, when he is sixty, Niño is as usual destitute but also needs a serious operation. The father finds himself wishing Niño dead.

Other stories are also concerned with the dark side. Indeed, in one, the main character is mildly obsessed with dark matter and this is not the only story where new physics comes into play, with another character feeling he is entering a multiverse. Indeed, one story is set on a spaceship in the future, that has got out of control and missed its target destination – New York – by millions of verycycles. Another running theme is that several of the characters are recovering from an operation and still feeling the effects of the operation or need an operation. One of these stories concerns Vila-Matas’ alter ago when we get the only literary story. Not all of the stories are set in Spain. The loner Luc lives and works in Paris and goes off (most reluctantly) to Stockholm, when he wins a prize in his church’s raffle. Andrei Petrescov lives in Novonikoloaevsk (which we now know as Novosibirsk) in 1904, with his difficult children. He, too, dabbles with the new science, wondering whether his children have been sent to him from the future. As we have seen, one is set in outer space. We visit Mexico and other Latin American countries as well New York and the Alamo. Another running theme is the idea of a vacuum or emptiness. Luc dreams of giving a performance (probably acting, but he does not say) in a large auditorium which is completely empty. In one very short story, a poet says Works of art give intellectual content to emptiness. There is the idea of the alter ego, which keeps cropping up. Various characters seem to be the alter ego or doppelgänger of other characters. Finally, we have a recurring character or, rather, a recurring name. Various members of the Forrest-Meyer family keep putting in brief appearances.

I will just mention one of the last stories – Because She Never Asked. This story is more like the Vila-Matas we know and love. It uses a technique found in several of the other stories. It is seemingly one story but then we find it is narrated by another narrator and s/he may be an unreliable narrator or may use the original story to illustrate some point about him/herself. In this case, the fictitious Rita Malu imitates the very real Sophie Calle. In other words, she becomes her alter ego. But, once we have had Malu/Calle’s story, we learn that this story has been written by the narrator, i.e. the Vila-Matas alter ego we find in many of his works, and he has written it at the behest of Calle, who asked him to write it and then said she would live whatever story he wrote. And that is where it gets complicated because Calle does not quite play the game, causing much turmoil for our narrator. This is the only story of this collection to have been translated into English and is available as a separate book.

Apart from this story, this is certainly different from the usual Vila-Matas. Some of the stories are very short, barely a page long, while others are longer. Most show a somewhat dark side. As I have shown, many have common themes, apart from the alleged exploration of the abyss. (I would certainly not have said that all of these stories are about exploring the abyss but then Vila-Matas may well have a different conception of the abyss from me.) While it is certainly interesting to see a somewhat different approach from Vila-Matas, I still must admit I preferred his most typical story. This book is not currently available in English, though it is available in four other languages, as you can see below.

First published in 2007 by Anagrama
No English translation of whole book Becasue She Never Asked published by New Directions in 2015
Published in French as Explorateurs de l’abîme by Christian Bourgois in 2008
Published in Italian as Esploratori dell’abisso by Feltrinelli in 2011
Published in Portuguese as Exploradores do abismo by Cosac Naify in 2013
Also published in Polish