Enrique Vila-Matas: Kassel no invita a la lógica (The Illogic of Kassel)
I have referred more than once on my website to the concept of MacGuffin/McGuffin, a term popularised by Alfred Hitchcock, to refer to a plot device which serves no purpose except to drive forward the story and is often irrelevant. Vila-Matas starts off with a McGuffin (his description is lifted straight from the Wikipedia article), which is used by a woman to invite our as usual unnamed narrator to dinner, and then to Documenta-13, a very real avant-garde event held in Kassel, in Germany. (A look at the participants shows that Vila-Matas was there.) The woman pretends to be who she is not. She may be Chus Martínez, one of the curators of the event but she may not be. (We later learn that she is María Boston, and not Martínez.) The narrator’s role will be to sit in a Chinese restaurant, next to a forest, and carry on his normal work of writing, though speaking to anyone who wishes to speak to him. He is initially reluctant but accepts and then later has doubts, partially as a result of comments from others and partially because he hears little from the event organisers.
The book essentially takes place at Documenta 13. Like most of us, the narrator is bemused by the modern art on display but also fascinated by some of it. Just next to his hotel, for example, is Tino Sehgal’s This Variation, a dark room where there may or may not be people inside doing things. The narrator goes in more than once and is touched by people who are there but remains uncomfortable with the whole idea. He is told – and more or less accepts – that the old-fashioned idea that a work of art had to be a physical object like a painting or sculpture is no longer valid. Indeed, one of the catchphrases is This is so contemporary, which means it is normal in the contemporary world not to know what is normal. Other catchphrases are art is art and what you make of it is up to to you and art is what happens to you. However, he does ruminate on the idea of avant-garde: the fact that it has changed over the years, that that it involves both the work itself but also discussion about the work As he wittily remarks, would any artist at Documenta 13 have the courage simply to hang a work of art on the wall? As regards literary avant-garde, however, he felt that it probably barely exists any more.
The nominal theme of Documenta 13 is displacement. While that is such a broad topic and can be said to be the theme of most art over the past one hundred years, there is also another theme, also found throughout 20th and 21st century art, and that is communication. We see it when the narrator makes arrangements for his arrival. There is a certain lack of communication with the organisers. When he arrives, contrary to what he has been promised, there is no-one to meet him. Eventually, he is met by Alka, who speaks three languages – Croatian, English and German. As the narrator’s three languages are Catalan, French and Spanish, communication between the three of them is difficult. (We later learn that he does in fact speak or, at least understand English.) The narrator has developed a technique called the Synge technique. When John Millington Synge was in the Aran Islands, writing his book on the islands, he stayed in a house, with a hole in the floor, which enabled him to listen to the conversation of the family. Unfortunately, they were speaking in Irish, a language he did not understand, so he simply made up what he thought they were saying. Our narrator does the same. For example, when he is in the Chinese restaurant, everyone is speaking either Chinese or German, so he simply invents what he thinks they are saying, some of it clearly over-imaginative.
The communication problem extends to his adaptation to Kassel and Germany. He feels, at times, a bit lost in the country, partially but not entirely because of the language issue. Indeed, he says that Germany can feel like being on the dark side of the moon. His compensation is to go off on tangents about Germany, for example thinking about Hitler and the Holocaust (many Jews were transported from Kassel to Auschwitz).
He struggles with what he is going to do in the Chinese restaurant. He has already suggested that he might, in addition to his stint in the restaurant, give a Lecture to Nobody, at the far side of the forest, though that seems to have disappeared, in the sense that no-one has mentioned it. However, it will later appear on the programme. For the restaurant, warned by a fellow writer about the possible theft of a laptop, he merely takes a notebook and pencil. He invents an author, called Autre (i.e. the French for Other) and has Autre writing a story, whose theme is going towards nothing. (Autre will later become Piniowsky, a minor character from a Joseph Walser story.) What that means, neither the narrator nor anyone else has any idea. However, the restaurant event is a bit of a flop. The narrator is very nervous, not helped by the fact that everyone is speaking Chinese or German. Alka and María, who accompany him, are speaking German to one another and disappear to go outside to have a smoke. Fortunately but also disappointingly, no-one approaches him, except a bizarre fellow Catalan. The next day, when he has to go on his own to the restaurant, he does not initially get off the Documenta bus and keeps on going round and round the bus circuit, eventually getting off after the tenth circuit.
Initially, I thought that this was going to be a bit boring but I found myself fascinated with his ramblings through Documenta. He examines many of the works/performances and we can get get a certain amount of vicarious enjoyment from his enjoyment of the art as well as his partial bemusement at some of them. Of course, the whole work raises the issue of what is art and what is the role of the art and artist in this day and age. Towards the end, when he has seen many of the works, he asks himself whether there was really anything new in what he had seen. The answer is a categorical no but it does not matter. He tells Chus Martínez, whom he finally meets, that modern art is not doing too badly, as compared with classical art. There is a national difference, he says, in that the Spanish always tended to want a message in their art. Chus says that is why she left Spain. One of the works of art, by Berlin artist Bastian Schneider (who does not appear on the Documenta 13 participant list, so may be made up by Vila-Matas), prints out a bit of paper, on which it says that the contemporary artist is like the pre-Aufklärung travelling artist, in that he is not looking to join an established community but rather hopes to found one. Perhaps we can leave the last word to Salvador Dalí, who told the narrator that the avant-garde does not exist but there is always Giorgione’s The Tempest, which revolutionised everything.
First published in 2014 by Seix Barral,
First English publication by New Directions in 2015
Translated byAnne McLean and Anna Milsom