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Enrique Vila-Matas: Mac y su contratiempo (Mac’s Problem)

Mac is a sixty-year old man who lives in Barcelona. His name comes not from the computer, as he is keen to tell us, but from a scene in John Ford’s film My Darling Clementine, which impressed his parents. He has recently started an enforced retirement when the family construction business went bankrupt. He is now dependent on his wife’s furniture restoration business, though he has a flat he plans to sell. Apart from the construction business, his two main interests have been his family and reading. He has preferred to read poetry and short stories. As for novels, he shares the views of Barthes, that they are a form of death.

However, he has now started to write a secret diary. He does not know what he is going to write in it but will discover as he goes along. All he knows is that he is a beginner and wants to write. His initial theme is the idea of repetition. This has several forms. For example, he thinks of Soteras who was in his kindergarten class and repeated a year. Mac never knew why but found out when he bumped into Soteras by chance many years later.

However, it is in the field of literature where this theme interests him. Soteras, at this meeting, mentioned the issue of films and books that you understand when you first see or read them but do not understand them the second time. He thinks of artists in all fields who copy others, particularly painters (and illustrates this point with a quote from Don Quixote). He particularly mentions Kubrick who is seen as an original but, as far as Mac is concerned, he borrowed most of his ideas from others.

This leads him to a project. He is accustomed to visit a local book shop and while there one day, he sees Ander Sánchez, a local author who has had some success. He remembers Sánchez’s first book called Walter y su Contratiempo [Walter and His Problem] which was a dismal failure and which Sánchez has disowned. In this book he told a series of interrelated stories, essentially narrated by a ventriloquist. To show the idea of the ventriloquist having multiple voices, each story was nominally told in the style of a famous short story writer, such as Cheever, Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Raymond Carver and Borges. The name of the writer was put at the top of each story so you knew who he was meant to be imitating. But each section also had some paragraphs which seemed to have been written under the influence of alcohol. Mac comes up with the idea of rewriting this book and, to start off, he would remove these bad sections.

Mac admits that he did not, in fact, read the entire book but got halfway through then skipped to the last chapter to find out what happened. This leads him onto one of Vila-Matas’ usual diversions, this time on incomplete works and the idea that much of modern art can be deemed to be incomplete and it is for the viewer to fill in the gaps.

At this time, while we follow his life and various odd events in it, he starts thinking about Sánchez’s book. Even though it is thirty years since he read it (or, rather, read half of it), he seems to have a clear recollection of it. He starts telling us the stories and how they tie in with the individual authors, who are the inspiration for each story. It is not entirely clear whether Walter the ventriloquist is the same as the ventriloquist narrator but that matters little. The stories are, as we might suspect, rather peculiar. One is of particular interest. Walter’s assistant, whom he was in love with, has run off with another man and it seems that Walter might have murdered the man, a barber. Indeed, he seems to confess all to Samson, his dummy, during a performance.

Meanwhile, things are not going well between Mac and his wife, Carmen. Indeed, Mac thinks of leaving her and running off with Ana Turner, the bookshop owner, though he has no money. One day, returning home, he is surprised to see Sánchez entering the local baker’s shop, followed a minute later by Carmen at a time when she would normally have been at work. He does nothing but goes home and starts reading the rest of Sánchez’s book. The first story he reads is called Carmen and not only does the woman resemble his wife, there are events described in the story that he knows happened in his wife’s life before they met.

Mac continues to read the book and thinks of how he would rewrite it (without actually doing so), both in terms of changing the plot and using the writer who inspired the story. As this is Vila-Matas we get quite a lot of information about the various writers and other literary titbits. Not surprisingly he focuses on the the story called Carmen. While this is going on, we are also following his daily life, including his ever-increasing marital problems, his discussions with Sánchez’s nephew (who may not be Sánchez’s nephew), who considers his famous uncle as the idiot of the family, various neighbourhood colourful characters and the voice in his head that tells him what to do. Perhaps, inevitably, the stories start overlapping with real life.

As usual from Vila-Matas, this is a witty, clever, literary novel. Mac and his friends and family make for an interesting and colourful collection of characters in their suburb of Barcelona, and the link between real life, the idea of rewriting someone’s else novel, the overlapping with several real writers, and Mac’s ideas on those writers and his planned rewrite of Sánchez’s novel all mesh superbly together to give us another fine novel by Vila-Matas.

First published in 2017 by Seix Barral
First English translation in 2019 by New Directions
Translated by Margaret Jull Costaand Sophie Hughes