Enrique Vila-Matas: La asesina ilustrada [The Illustrated Murderess]
My translation of the title is ungainly but, as far as I am aware, there is not a feminine of the word assassin in English so murderess will have to do. As you will see if you read the book, the sex of the murderer is important. The book starts with the unnamed narrator, who we later learn is Elena Villena, wife of the writer, Juan Herrera. She is going to visit the writer, Vidal Escabia, who is staying in room 666 in a hotel in Bremen. When she arrives, the door is unlocked and she goes in. She finds his dead body on the floor. He seems to have shot himself. Next to him is the sealed envelope that Elena had sent him two days ago. The envelope contained the original manuscript of the story La asesina ilustrada, notes on it written by Ana Cañizal and a letter signed by Elena. She thought about taking the envelope but left it there for the police. The authorities certified that it was a suicide and the envelope was returned to Elena.
Elena tells us a little about the dead man. He was a relatively unknown writer, who had recently been rediscovered in Spain and some of his works republished. He had gone to Argentina during the Civil War, where he had published two short novels. These are now very difficult to find. He next published a biography of Tolstoy and then travelled a lot with a woman called Jenny López, who had been an extra in Busby Berkeley films. In 1945 he published Perfidia, set in Havana, perhaps his best work, according to Elena. After World War II, he moved to Lima, where he continued to write, including The Fantastic Story of Eva Siva, written in English but with the dialogue in Italian. His wife, Gilda Luna, died in a car accident and he returned to Spain, living in his home town of Elche. He worked in the local library for the rest of his life. In the spring of 1975, he suddenly decided to take a long journey, ending up in the hotel in Bremen. He had written what Elena considers a very poor story – a travel story to a fictitious place – and someone known only as J.M. saw two glowing reviews of it (one of which turned out to be by Escabia himself under a pseudonym). He contacted Escabia who mentioned another book, which he had not yet written. Escabia worked hard over the coming week and wrote the story, which he sent to J.M. who agreed to publish and also sent him a copy of the memoirs of Juan Herrera, for which he asked Escabia to write the introduction. It is at this point that things suddenly change. Elena reveals that she considers that Escabia was a terrible writer. When she learned (some time later and a year after the death of Juan Herrera) that he was in Bremen, she hurried there, with the envelope that we know of but she had indicated that it was from Juan Herrera. This caused a considerable shock to Escabia and, in Elena’s view, why he killed himself.
Elena has a box full of correspondence between Escabia and Herrera. Herrera absolutely hated Escabia but kept up the correspondence to find out information about him. In particular, he suspected that Escabia had not written a single word of the books published under his name and was determined to get him to admit it, which he does. His books were written, for the most part by Jenny López and Gilda Luna. Escabia was continually worried that Herrera was going to reveal the full story. The rest of the book consists of the letter sent by Elena, Ana Cañizal’s notes and the text of the story La asesina ilustrada. We learn that Ana Cañizal is to write an introduction to Herrera’s latest memoirs and she goes to visit him. (He is no longer living with his wife, though they seem to be on reasonably good terms.) We learn that he is afraid of dying but, in a somewhat mock biography he writes for Ana for the memoirs, he forecasts his own death. In fact, he dies of a heart attack that same day, just before midnight. Ana had been watching from a flat she had opposite his house. She had seen the curtains closed (but not by whom) and only learned of his death the next day, when she goes to see him and finds his body. While she is there with Elena, she notices a copy of the manuscript of La asesina ilustrada, with blood stains on it. Later, it has disappeared. At this point she has a series of mysterious dreams (including a dream in the dream), from which she concludes that it is her task to solve the murder. Things get decidedly more complicated when she finds a section of the memoirs about Elena, praising her very highly. Elena, reluctantly, returns the manuscript and we then get to read the text of La asesina ilustrada.
It is a strange story but is clearly about Herrera and his relationship with his sister, who is called Ariadne in the story. It reminds Ana of El dulce clima de Lesbos [The Pleasant Climate of Lesbos], Elena’s only published novel. We know that Herrera had an ambiguous relationship with his sister. When he was young – she was twice his age – he accidentally saw her standing naked in front of the mirror. She beat him savagely for this and it has coloured his sexuality ever since. As Ana is reading the story, she comments on it and finds clues (which often seem a bit forced) which proves (to her) that whoever reads the story is likely to be killed and that Herrera was the first victim. She is, of course,worried that she might be the next one. (This, apparently happened with Ignacio de Luzán‘s Poética). When Ana mentions this to Elena, Elena laughs it off. Ana remains frightened that this is going to happen and, while staying in the house, hears strange noises and sees strange shadows.
This is a very strange story, both with its interlocking stories and the idea that the mere reading of a story can cause death to the reader. It jumps from the Escabia story, to Herrera and then to Elena and Ana, all in a relatively short text. The text of the La asesina ilustrada story is key but that story is perhaps the strangest part of the book, though it clearly acts as a sort of cipher to the life and death of Herrera. Of course, we do learn what has happened but we do not learn why. The story has not been translated into English, though it has been translated into Romanian (and French and Italian).
First published in 1977 by Tusquets
No English translation
Published in French as La lecture assassine by Passage du Nord/Ouest in 2002
Published in Italian as L’assassina letterata by Voland in 2004
Also available in Romanian