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Enrique Vila-Matas: El mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady)

Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.) was a novel, nominally by a man whose name (Marcelo) was only mentioned once in the book. He was a writer, suffering from writer’s block and he was writing about writers who had either written little and then abandoned writing or who had not produced anything at all, at least in their lifetime. This book follows on from that book. We learn that the name of the writer was, in fact, Montano, the one with the malady in the title. This book is narrated by his father, also a writer. Both father and son are suffering from what he calls literature sickness. In the case of the son it is simply writer’s block. In the case of the father, it is seeing everything as though it were literature and not real life.

At the start of the novel the father is visiting his son in Nantes. The advantage of the son’s malady is that, as he cannot write, he is reading more and we get a book, as in Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.), where we wonder whether it is real but obscure or entirely fictitious. Montano son is reading the fictitious Julio Arward’s Prosa de la frontera propia. (A quick peek at the English text in Google books – I read this in Spanish – reveals that the English-language translator has not translated it. It means something like Prose of His own Frontier.) The narrator says that Arward seems to be the double of the very real Justo Navarro (link in Spanish. Navarro is a Spanish poet and novelist who has not been translated into English. I have a couple of his books which I hope to read one day.) This looks like being the theme of this work, particularly when we learn that Arward has his own double, the fictitious Cosme Badía, though this turns out not to be the case. It becomes more complicated when we learn that Navarro interviewed himself but has it signed by the narrator, while Navarro signed an interview the narrator did with himself.

Things do not work out between father and son – they have a row – so the father hurriedly leaves. Following his normal literary impulses, he takes the first train from Nantes station but, unlike in literature, it merely takes him straight home to Barcelona. Back home, his wife Rosa is getting tired of his literature sickness so he decides to go off to Valparaiso, in Chile, where he meets the aviator Margot Valerí, an old friend, but also the ugliest man in the world, Felipe Tongoy, an actor, and the ghost of Charles Baudelaire. He prepares a map of what he is now calling Montano’s Malady and, on which Spain comes out quite badly, stuck in nineteenth century realism and with its critics and readers despising thought.

Back home, with Rosa being somewhat difficult, he receives a copy of Montano’s latest story and heads off to the Azores, where he meets Teixeira, the apparently only bookish man on the small island he visits, who, he determines, is either a criminal or an artist and therefore probably a type of new man he has come to despise. Things change in the next section, where we learn that he has written a story called Mal de Montano (Montano’s Malady). We also learn that, while Tongoy does exist, Margot probably does not. Indeed. Tongoy seems to follow him around (or he follows Tongoy), as he pops up in various places the narrator visits.

However, from this point on we learn that, for the narrator, the key literary form is the diary. He sees it as the way out of writer’s block (which he is now suffering) , even though it is not as real as literature. He proceeds to cite numerous writers who have written diaries, from Amiel to Gide. Dali, for example, is mentioned and the narrator claims that he is a better writer than painter! Indeed, according to Alan Pauls, the great theme of diary-writing is now illness, which the narrator feels is appropriate in his case.

We now learn about his matronym, a term he has coined to indicate a pseudonym taken from one’s mother. His mother, Rosario Girondo, was an inveterate diary-writer and he has adopted her name as a part-time pseudonym. He is also off to Budapest, with Tongoy and Rosa (both of whom, he suggests, could be fictitious and who could be having an affair with one another), where he gives a talk he calls The Budapest Theory, even though it is neither a theory nor about Budapest but merely his ideas on the diary as literature. He later says giving this talk aged him twenty years in one day. He travels around and continues to meet dead writers – Emily Dickinson and Musil, before ending up in the Alps dining with a host of dead writers.

This book is wonderfully post-modern. It is chaotic, anarchic and thoroughly original. It also introduces us to a wide range of mainly European and Latin American writers. Though Kafka and Borges are the presiding gurus, there are many more, nearly all, unlike in Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.), real and some of whom who are still very much alive. Of course, as it is post-modern, it is never clear who is real and who is not. It is very witty and self-deprecating. It is full of a wide variety of quotes, random facts and odd stories. It was a great joy to read and, fortunately, is available in English.

Publishing history

First published in 2002 by Anagrama
First English translation by New Directions in 2007
Translated by Jonathan Dunne