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Enrique Vila-Matas: El viaje vertical [The Vertical Voyage]

Federico Mayol is in his seventies. He has owned and run a successful insurance company, which he has handed over to his eldest son. The day before the novel opens, he has celebrated his golden wedding anniversary with his wife, Julia, and three children. They now have a house in the country, where Julia looks after the garden. He is generally very satisfied with himself, though not entirely with his children. His daughter has married a rich banker much older than her but, to her father’s disgust, is having an affair with a younger man. His younger son is an artist and arrogant, who looks down at his father’s lack of artistic temperament. Julia has always been a good wife and mother so he is somewhat shocked when, as the novel opens, she wishes to say something to him. She hesitates, saying that she is afraid of him but he encourages her. She then tells him that she wants him to leave the house forever and leave her in peace. She has put up with his bullying, his frequent absences and his affair (he was unaware that she knew of it) and now wants to live her few remaining years in peace, trying to discover who she is, instead of just being his wife, with no sense of her own purpose. He is devastated and cannot believe it. He thinks that she has gone mad but she has not. He consults their children but all accept that their mother is serious in her intentions. He cannot imagine starting over again at his age and feels that, as he has been a good provider, she is being unjust.

His friends suggest to him that he should travel, with some saying that he should go to places that he knows and others suggesting that he should change his name and go incognito to places he has never visited before. Things get worse when he goes to visit his favourite son, Ramón, who has succeeded him as head of the insurance company and Ramón tells that he is thoroughly fed up with life – fed up with his wife, fed up with running the insurance company and fed up with everything. So Federico tries a limited bit of travel, hiring a taxi to take him to parts of Barcelona he does not know but ends up at the cemetery where his parents are buried, a place he has not visited for many years. Despite himself, he ends up at Julián’s flat, where the usual disagreement take place.

He does not really want to go and finds reason for not going. He is very keen on Catalan independence and cannot imagine living anywhere but in Barcelona. (We also learn of his role in the fight for Catalan independence.) But Julia is not going to give up, so he eventually makes plans to go to Porto. He has been before, but not for thirty years, and quite liked it. His nephew (in fact, Julia’s nephew) lives there, whom he quite liked but has not seen for thirty years. In particular, port, the drink, comes from there and it is his favourite drink. After a last suggestion from his daughter that he go and live with her and her husband and a suggestion by his wife that he should stay in Barcelona, he is off to Porto. He speaks Portuguese but not very well, despite having lived and worked there when he was twenty, and, apart from his nephew, Pablo, knows no-one there. He and Pablo almost cross paths three times but, quite amusingly, fail to do so on each occasion. For various reasons, Porto does not work and he is off to, first, Lisbon, and then Funchal in Madeira, where he finally does meet Pablo. He also meets the narrator, who, two-thirds of the way through the book, both puts in an appearance (as a character) and introduces himself to us.

This is a novel is, of course, about a man trying to find a meaning to his life when, in his early Seventies, what he thought gave his life meaning is suddenly pulled away from him. He saw himself as a successful businessman, but no longer is, as a successful politician but, as we learn, he had been driven out of the party by the younger generation, as a successful father, but realises he has failed with all three of his children, as a good friend, but his best friends have all died and the remainder he does not really like and, in particular, a good husband but clearly he was not. He has a very cynical view of life – no-one knows anything about anything he says, meaning that learning gained by education serves little or no purpose. By this, of course, he means his youngest son Julián and also the fact that he himself (in his view) is very knowledgeable, despite his lack of formal education. In short, life seems to have little meaning for him any more. Vila-Matas cleverly gives us several other characters who are clearly in a worse situation than Federico. These include Julián, who clearly is not a very talented artist and a not very nice human being, the decidedly unbalanced taxi driver he meets in Lisbon and his drunken and divorced nephew, Pablo. Interestingly enough, Federico treats all of them badly.

This is not the sort of book we have to come expect from Vila-Matas. There are few literary references and fewer post-modern touches. One interesting literary reference is an apparent quote from Kafka that Federico felt like Kafka who felt that he had committed a fundamental error in life but did not know what. The narrator is also an interesting case, not only appearing and introducing himself two-thirds of the way through the book but also revealing that he had all, his adult life, been in search of character for whom he could be the author. However, overall, this is a different approach for Vila-Matas, which might explain why you can read it in Catalan, Chinese, Hebrew and Norwegian but not English.

Publishing history

First published in 1999 by Anagrama
No English translation
Published in French as Le voyage vertical by 10-18 in 2004
Translated by André Gabastou
Published in Italian as Il viaggio verticale by Voland in 2006
Translated by Simone Cattaneo

Also available in Catalan, Chinese, Hebrew, Norwegian and Portuguese