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Enrique Vila-Matas: Montevideo

Our hero is a writer who is struggling with his writing. He had written one book, called Nepal while living in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, where he pretended he was Gary Cooper in Morocco, though without Marlene Dietrich. From there he decided he wanted to be more an exiled US writer of the 1920s Lost Generation and moved to Paris.

However, while in Paris, he gave up writing and became a drug dealer, selling drugs to Americans. He then moved back to Barcelona, where he resumed his writing. He later returned to Paris and wrote about his previous stay in a book called A Garage of My Own. As for the second part of the book…

However, this basic plot outline is not what this book is about. It is, as is usual with Vila-Matas, about writing and about literature.

He outlines what he calls five trends in writing:
1. Those with nothing to say
2. Those deliberately not narrating anything
3. Those not saying everything
4. Those hoping that God will tell everything
5. Those who have handed over everything to the power of technology which seems to be transcribing and recording everything, thereby making the role of the writer expendable

He concludes by quoting Voltaire: the secret of being a bore is to tell everything.

He will play around with these ideas throughout the book. He will also point out that he, the narrator, switches between these categories. He goes further when he starts discussing the omniscient narrator and, in particular the nineteenth century writers who wanted to deal with Everything, citing Melville as an example, but, interestingly also citing Miklós Szentkuthy. He himself knows that he has to go down the long and lost path to really find his soul.

A lot of the work is mentioning numerous authors and stories about them. He is friends, for example, with Antonio Tabucchi and tells one story about a tramp that he, the narrator, had seen in Paris. The tramp would sit in front of a newspaper kiosk, near a now departed bookshop, and read classic works. Every so often he would stop, take out a Havana cigar and smoke it. It seems Tabucchi had also seen the same tramp. There will be many more other stories and coincidences.

However, there are numerous other authors who make an appearance, many of whom you will have heard of, some of whom you may have heard of and quite a few of whom you will not have heard of, for the simple reason that they are entirely fictitious. He makes no distinction between the real and fictitious ones.

Back to the plot, such as it is. So he wrote his first book, then went to Paris where he sold drugs and then on to Barcelona to resume his writing career, including a visit to Paris to gather a material for story about his stay there.

The second part of the book sees him travelling around the world. He starts in Cascais in Portugal, where he has been invited to a film festival and where he meets some French film actors. However, this books is called Montevideo and that is his next stop and, given that it is the title of the book, it is where he spends a lot of time.

Julio Cortázar apparently once wrote a story set in a hotel room in a fairly small and unknown hotel in Montevideo called the Cervantes. The room had a hidden door behind a cupboard. This is symbolic both for Vila-Matas and for Cortázar. You can read about the hotel here (link in Spanish) and the actual Cortázar story here.

However, what is interesting and one of the many coincidences in this book, is that another Argentinian writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, also wrote, at about the same time, a story set in this hotel. You can read about it here (link in Spanish). Our narrator was curious to see this hotel so off he goes to Montevideo and visits the virtually unknown hotel and gets into a discussion about some obscure Uruguayan poets. It is not just disappearing rooms and odd doors but also spiders now make an appearance, particularly the not very friendly mygale spider.

Juan Eduardo Cirlot wrote a famous book, A Dictionary of Symbols. Our narrator picks up on the door symbol and much of the rest of the book will involve this issue. Cirlot describes doors as symbols of openings, outlets, hopes of salvation. Our narrator finds the hotel and checks out the mysterious room. The room, however, will later disappear though the large spider he sees continue to worry him and there also seems to be some sort of conspiracy going on. He is shown round Montevideo by a Catalan and learns, for example, that the tango was invented in Finland and a lot more.

Back in Paris, an artist friend sets up an exhibition with a special feature just for him. He gets a special key and enters a dark room with it and then suddenly finds himself in Bogotá where he is to judge a book prize. Further stops on his travels include the Flatiron Building in New York. Reykjavik and St Gallen in Switzerland, aided by an Italian writer called Cuadrelli whom he confuses with Morelli from Julio Cortázar‘s Rayuela (Hopscotch). It is Cuadrelli that tells him that no writer really know why he is writing, except for the really bad ones.

All the while, in both parts, our narrator has been dealing with the issue of ambiguity in writing though, as he tells us, he is less and less sure what the word ambiguity actually means. Its meaning used to be clear but, nowadays, its meaning is, well, ambiguous. He quotes Leonardo Sciascia who said that not only are things becoming more ambiguous but they are even more so when we try to write them down. Our narrator describes himself as an actor of ambiguity. He even tries to imagine what ambiguity must have been like for cavemen, having previously told us that he is interested in the Palaeolithic. In short, particularly in the latter part of the book, the concept of ambiguity, both in literature and the world at large, assumes considerable importance for our narrator.

All these issues about doors, ambiguity and coincidences make for fascinating reading and seem to go more off the beaten track than in most of his previous works. However, I must say that I particularly enjoyed the many literary stories, featuring many writers and other creative artists, many of whom are real, a few of which are not. Some of the stories may well be true, such as the one about the two Argentinian authors writing about the same hotel in Montevideo. Many, however, clearly come from Vila-Matas’ fertile mind and are rich in originality and cleverness but are also illuminating about writers and writing.

Once again I thoroughly enjoyed Vila-Matas’ ramblings. If you prefer plot-based novels, this might not be the ideal choice but if you like novels of ideas, literary explorations and a whole load of tangents, leading sometimes to nowhere and often to interesting and illuminating discoveries then you will this novel enormously rewarding.

First published in 2022 by Seix Barral
No English translation