Enrique Vila-Matas: Aire de Dylan [Looks Like Dylan]
If you have read other books by Vila-Matas, the format of this one will be seem to fairly familiar, at least at the beginning. The narrator, Vila-Matas himself or a character based on him, has been asked to attend a conference. This is on a literary subject, on which he will expiate at great length, giving numerous examples, both real and fictitious. He will also go off on all sorts of tangents and diversions, all of which will be great fun and full of erudite comments and learning. In this book, the subject at hand is failure, though not necessarily literary failure. However, the book does not follow his usual route.
The narrator has been invited to a conference on failure in St Gallen, Switzerland. The invitation has, in fact, come from a Professor Echèk. Echèk, as he points out, is the Haitian Creole word for failure (cf échec, the French for failure), who is a professor of mathematics. Our narrator has a friend at the university and asks her about the professor. She confirms that the professor is a good man, though obsessed with the theme of failure. However, when he arrives at the conference, the professor is missing, giving rise to the rumour that he may not actually exist, though his colleagues maintain that he is ill.
Our narrator attends a talk given by a young Catalan called Vilnius Lancastre. Our narrator does not know Vilnius but did know his father, Juan. (Probably irrelevant aside, though, as this is a review of Vila-Matas, such asides are called for: Juan Lancastre, i.e John Lancaster, is the name of John of Gaunt, who features in Shakespeare’s Richard II where he makes the famous scepter’d isle speech. Though he did not have a son called Vilnius, he was married four times and had sixteen children, one of whom was Henry IV.) Unlike all the other participants, Vilnius is not going to talk about failure but rather read a hastily-written story about the six worst days in his life, instead. It transpires that it should perhaps have been his father attending the conference, and not Vilnius but, sadly, Juan died just a few days before so Vilnius was invited instead. His story, not surprisingly, is about, his father, amongst (many) other things.
Vilnius’ story is of poor quality, rambling, full of diversions and, frankly, probably not too interesting. He has been told that he has only forty minutes but tells the audience at the beginning that he will probably overrun. If that is the case, he will continue in a nearby bar. That he does overrun (considerably) and how the conference organisers deal (or do not deal ) with it, is all part of the fun. The speech is further marred in that the simultaneous interpretation facilities are not working properly so that those that do not understand Spanish have difficulty following it. As a result, and because it is so boring, many of the participants drift away. Indeed, our narrator sits at a seat near the back so he can slip away, if necessary, though he does not. This post-modern focus on the extraneous events concerning the speech take up almost as much time as the speech itself. Indeed, not only is his talk (nominally) about failure but it is in itself a failure, with everyone leaving. However, when we are down to only eight participants, the technical problems are partially resolved and people drift back again, so that the failure has failed.
Much of the speech is about his late father. He hated him with a passion. Indeed, his hatred for his father is only matched by his hatred for his (still living) mother. His father was a moderately successful writer (though his widow, Vilnius’ mother, does not agree.) Father and son constantly fought, with Juan continually putting down his son for his failure in life. He has done three things in his life. He has made a short, avant-garde film called Radio Babaouo, worked in advertising (he was fired) and is now setting up a huge archive of documents on failure. He intends to make a full-length film on it but accepts that he will not, in fact, do so. His literary hero and model is Goncharov’s Oblomov, a man who was so lazy that even getting up was a chore. Vilnius feels the same way and says that this story he has written will be his last. Now, after his father’s death, he finds himself hearing a voice calling, alternatively, Vilnius and then Hamlet, which he thinks is his father’s. He finds that he seems to have inherited his father’s memories, though only spasmodically, not all the time. Most importantly, he misses his father, not out of any love or affection but because the constant bickering inspired him to do things, for which he now feels no incentive.
Inevitably, there are lots of diversions. One in particular involves the film Three Comrades, which has a quote in it at the beginning, which Vilnius has used at the start of Radio Babaouo. He thought he knew where it came from but an email asking him for the source leads him on a complex wild goose chase to find it, with this chase outlined in great detail in his talk. The other red herring is, of course, Bob Dylan. It turns out that Vilnius looks a bit like the young Bob Dylan. While he does not cultivate the look, he does nothing to conceal it. Moreover, his father looked a bit like Dylan when he was in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Vilnius even had his Joan Baez, as his mother describes her. She was Mariona – ugly, with glasses, small but overweight, hairy, awkward and from a poor family. As with Dylan and Joan Baez, the relationship does not seem to have lasted.
The talk drags on for two hours. At the end, our narrator is the only one that applauds, though Vilnius looks daggers at him when he does. (Vilnius later tells him that the applause prevents him from being a complete failure.) Vilnius does, however, say that no-one loves him, including his mother and father. Of course, once the talk is finished, the narrator/Vila-Matas are off on their usual tangents – including the relationship between fiction and reality. In other words, how much of Vilnius’ story is true and how much fiction, leading him to a discussion on this topic. It would seem that he has raised this issue with other writer friends. How much of a story is real and how much invented?
And then we are off on more diversions. Vilnius heads over to Hollywood to see if he can track down the real source for the quote. Meanwhile, the theme of flawed father/son relationships comes to the fore, particularly the sons of famous fathers. Nunca me he sentido hijo suyo, sino hijo de su leyenda [I have never felt that I was his son but the son of a legend]. He later admits that he copied this phrase from Marlene Dietrich’s daughter. The issue of authenticity/copying also becomes a theme. As this is a literary novel, Hamlet is the literary reference of choice. Vilnius has already heard the voice of his father in his head whispering Hamlet but now he starts to suspect that his father was murdered. This is helped by the fact that his mother’s lover, whom he suspects, is called Claudio (i.e. the same name as the man who murdered Hamlet’s father and married Hamlet’s mother). When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put in an appearance, he is more convinced. The story becomes more complicated when we learn that Vilnius’ mother claims to have destroyed the autobiography of her husband. The narrator and Vilnius now decide to rewrite it themselves.
While this book certainly indulges in the usual diversions, there are fewer literary ones than in many of his earlier novels. Indeed, the major diversion is a cinematic one, the one relating to the quote from Three Comrades. While it is not unusual for Vila-Matas to start off on one theme and veer on to another, the main theme of this book, that of failure, disappointingly seems to disappear as we get through the book, as he focuses more on the origin of the Three Comrades quote, the autobiography and the father/son relationship; in other words fewer literary subjects. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a writer to produce a variation of the same book. However, while this is still a fine book, because of this lack of literary rambling, I did not enjoy it as much as some of his earlier ones.
First published in 2012 by Seix Barral
No English translation
Published in French as Air de Dylan by Christian Bourgois in 2012
Translated by André. Gabastou (
Published in Italian as Un’aria da Dylan by Feltrinelli in 2012
Translated by E. Liverani
Also available in Croatian, Romanian and Swedish