Enrique Vila-Matas: Doctor Pasavento
If you have read other Vila-Matas’ books, you will certainly find familiar tropes in this one. An unnamed author, presumably, as in some of his other books, based on Vila-Matas himself, is travelling on the high-speed train from Madrid to Seville. He is enjoying the luxury, as he tells us. In particular he regales us with the choice of music he gets on the train company-provided headphones. At the conference, he and Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga are to speak on the relationship between fiction and reality. As this is Vila-Matas, it is a long time before he arrives in Seville, as we get many diversions. As in other books, there is a sort of generalised literary-based theme that he is examining. In this book it is disappearance. Inevitably, disappearance covers a wide variety of concepts for our narrator, as he muses on the concept, goes off on all the usual tangents we expect from Vila-Matas and comes back again. (He will later refer to Laurence Sterne with admiration, who wrote a book which was basically all digressions.)
Who is Dr Pasavento? We first meet him at the beginning when the narrator dreams of him as someone who has disappeared in Montaigne’s Tower. (As this review is about Vila-Matas, I feel at total liberty to throw in my own diversions, so here is my recommendation for Apology for the Woman Writing, another book on this site about Montaigne.) The doctor, who is not called Doctor Pasavento in this book but Dottore (i.e. the Italian for doctor) Pasavento, has disappeared without trace. This reminds him of Atxaga, who tends to appear in the narrator’s life and then disappear for a long spell. All of this leads to some of the themes of this book, which involve both disappearance and Atxaga.
The first few pages already lead off to all sorts of tangents. He imagines he is walking along a boulevard at the end of world. He is asked Where does your passion for disappearing come from? It is not clear who is asking him or what is response his. He buys two books at the station kiosk that are being hailed as the great novels of the current time (the titles are fictitious) and they remind him of another writer who appears many times in this book, Robert Walser, who had his own form of disappearance, a nervous breakdown, leading him to spend the rest of his life in a sanatorium. Indeed, to recount all his tangents would require almost as much space as the book itself takes.
On one occasion, the narrator travels to Paris to see his French publisher, Christian Bourgois, who is, of course, Vila-Matas’ publisher. He stays in the Hotel de Suède and this leads to a highly detailed and speculative tangent. The hotel overlooks the rue Vaneau and the Matignon Gardens, official residence of the French Prime Minister. Starting with the historic Dupeyroux pharmacy, where he goes to buy aspirins as French ones are said to be stronger than Spanish ones, he learns, through Google, of all sorts of historic associations. Gide had a house there, as did Saint-Exupéry, which leads him to make a connection with Daniele del Giudice, the Italian writer who, like Saint-Exupéry, was an aviator and whom the narrator had recently bumped into, nearby. The Syrian Embassy is there. He knows little about Syria but, after finding out about the Embassy, he keeps hearing about Syria in various contexts. Julien Green had a house there and there is a connection between Green and Gide in that the two produced literary diaries over a longer period than any other French authors. He sees a mysterious house which nobody seems to know who lives there but he does see some silhouettes of people in the basement talking to one another. He writes an article for a Spanish magazine and then, when he finds out more, writes one for a Mexican magazine but wants to update that when he finds that Marx lived there for a while. He will find out more in the very real Paris Ouvrier. As he says, the story of rue Vaneau will never end.
We do get back to disappearing. He accepts that actually disappearing would be quite difficult. But he also thinks of reclusive writers like Pynchon and Salinger and Agatha Christie’s famous eleven day disappearance. He even tries it himself, going to Naples, adopting the name Dr Pasavento, with Dr Pynchon as a back-up name. The problem is that no-one seems to have noticed or cared. (He is divorced and his daughter had died from a heroin overdose.) He abandons the attempt. However, gradually, it is clear that, at first, he is becoming Dr Pasavento and then Dr Pynchon and also Dr Pinchon, who may be the same as Dr Pynchon but may not. All this helped by his discussions with Morante. Morante is a former colleague of his in Naples. Our narrator’s girlfriend, Leonor, left our narrator for Morante but he seems to hold no grudge. Morante seemingly has Alzheimer’s so cannot remember who Pasavento/our narrator is but seems quite lucid. Complicated? Yes, it is.
Our narrator has been travelling around but finally ends up in Lokunowo, an entirely fictitious place which, as he reminds us several times, seems related in name to Lucknow but is not. This helps him disappear but also helps to move on to the next stage – madness. Pinchon, or whatever his name (Yo era Pynchon & Pinchon [I was Pynchon and Pinchon] is now is a doctor of psychiatry but is also having treatment himself. (No estoy aquí para escribir, sino para enloquecer [I am not here to write but to go mad].) Rue Vaneau is still alive. He finds a reference to it in Rayuela (Hopscotch) and even a book called L’Attentat de la rue Vaneau [The Attack on Rue Vaneau] which, to my surprise, really does exist.
This book is enormous fun, getting more and more complicated but, at the same time, more and more enjoyable, as we learn a lot about Robert Walser, meet António Lobo Antunes and learn a lot about obscure authors and books. Sadly, at the time of writing, it is not available in English, though available in five other languages. Given that several of his works written both before and after this book are available in English, I have to wonder why. I enjoyed it immensely and, while it is a bit longer than most of his other works, I do not see why this should be a deterrent. I would hope that it will eventually appear in English.
First published in 2005 by Anagrama
No English translation
Published in French as Docteur Pasavento by Points in 2013
Published in German as Doktor Pasavento by Nagel & Kimche in 2007
Published in Italian as Dottor Pasavento by Feltrinelli in 2008
Published in Portuguese as Doutor Pasavento by Teorema in 2007
Also available in Greek