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Enrique Vila-Matas: Una casa para siempre [A House Forever]

This story is narrated by a professional ventriloquist. Though his narration is more or less chronological, he primarily focuses on key events in his life, leaving us often having to fill in the gaps. We start in his childhood. He and his friends had been strongly advised to keep away from an old man, as he was mad and believed that he was the Emperor of Abyssinia. He was, in fact, a rich Argentinian called Martín Yazalde and, because he was rich, he was allowed to play out his fantasies, within reason. The narrator’s friend, Laura, first discovered him and she was fond of him, though the others teased him. Later, she said that she would always love him. Soon after, her body was found, raped, her tongue bitten out and murdered. The boys found what they thought was a puppet hanging from a tree, covered in snow. It turned out that it was Yazalde’s body. He had hanged himself.

The narrator later moves to Paris and lives in Montparnasse. He has a friend called Marguerite. Her brother is raped, his tongue torn out and murdered. The narrator naturally thinks of the murder of Laura, particularly when he sees Pedro sitting in a café nearby. Pedro was one of the boys who used to tease Yazalde and therefore was well aware of how Laura died. Both the narrator and Marguerite suspect Pedro of the murder, not least because he is something of a solitary, embittered person. He tells Marguerite Becoming a young man is something that is very painful because we have to kill the child within us. Marguerite and the narrator try to trap Pedro into confessing but nothing works so they enlist a friend, Marie, whom Pedro does not know. She befriends Pedro but comes to the conclusion that he is merely a sad, unhappy person and not a murderer. The narrator is involved in the demonstrations against the government. At one demonstration, he sees Pedro in a side street. Pedro comes out of the street, joins the demonstration and then bumps against the narrator, causing him to fall and badly hurt himself, so much so that he had to go to hospital. When he comes out of hospital, a succession of unfortunate incidents affect him, from slipping on a banana skin on the dark stairs in his house to receiving an anonymous package containing a cat’s tongue. These and other unpleasant incidents he suspects are caused by Pedro. However, eventually Pedro leaves town (he seems to end up on an island in the South Pacific) and, suddenly, the various incidents stop.

Twenty years later, he is now a successful ventriloquist, known world-wide. He is starting out on a journey to San Sebastián, where he is going to visit someone called Julio. Only later do we learn or, rather, guess, that Julio is his seventeen-year old son, whom he has never met . He had had a relationship with Elena. They had broken up and Elena had now died. On meeting Julio, he gives him two pieces of advice. Firstly, never have a close relationship with anyone and secondly, never have children. The next day Julio announces that he is to marry and that they plan to have at least one child. The relationship between father and son is difficult, not least because Julio is both glad to see his father but also bitter at his father’s neglect over the years.

We next join him as he is thinking about his highly successful career as a ventriloquist and, indeed, follow part of his act, with a dummy called Samson. He himself is called The Great Greppi, with the name partially based on The Great Gabbo. He is now in Lisbon and getting tired of the act and thinking of giving up. He decides to tell the audience a story, using Samson. He tells the story of when he was in Seville and looking to recruit an assistant. A woman called Reyes applied but she had lost her voice and now needed another job. They immediately hit it off, both professionally and personally. However, things start to go wrong, not least because he is jealous, even of Samson. They have a row and he fires her. In any case, she has recovered her voice and can go back to singing. In all this conversation, Samson plays a key role, as though he were a separate character, which he seems to be.

Inevitably, Greppi misses her and he looks for her all over the world but without success. One day, he is performing in Lisbon and sees her name on the list of performers, in a double act with the Barber of Triana. Apparently, they had been working in a cabaret in Oporto. Eventually, he does approach her and asks her to come back to him. The rest of the book seems to be odd episodes in his life, with not all of which is particularly life-changing but all with their own oddities. In some cases, he watches and listens, with minimal participation in the action. He meets some famous people. For example, he has a strange dinner with Marguerite Duras and Sonia Orwell, together with his friend Andrés. Greppi is broke, as a result of excessive gambling, and looking for a cheap garrett to live in and Duras has one to rent. He tells them that he is writing a novel about a ventriloquist, who murders a barber in Lisbon, as the barber had stolen his lover. Andrés, meanwhile, explains that he is from Atlantis and describes his life there.

Another failed marriage (that lasted only a few days) is a story he tells to a seventy year old German, whose own marriage lasted much longer but was also a failure, though for different reasons. Other strange stories include the deathbed confession of his father, regarding the death of his (Greppi’s) mother, though his father was always telling tall stories so he, probably like Greppi himself, was an unreliable narrator.

I thought that this was an excellent book. It is certainly post-modern but not too much, with its unreliable narrator, varying stories, glimpses of the narrator’s life that do not always seem to hang together and with key gaps left to the reader to fill in. Overall, however, it tells a a fascinating tale of a somewhat mysterious and odd character who makes his living by being two people, with the other person – Samson, his dummy – having a distinct character of his own, his alter ego, if you will. It is unfortunate that it has not been translated into English.

Publishing history

First published in 1988 by Anagrama
No English translation
Published in French as Une maison pour toujours by Christian Bourgois in 1993
Published in German as Ein Haus für immer by Popa in 1989
Also available in Romanian