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Enrique Vila-Matas: Esta bruma insensata [That Mindless Mist]

The title comes from the French, a quotation from Raymond Queneau’s Chêne et Chien, an autobiographical novel in verse. There is an English translation of the Queneau book by Madeleine Velguth, published by Peter Lang Publishing in 1995. The quotation is Cette brume insensée où s’agitent des ombres, comment pourrais-je l’éclaircir?. Georges Perec uses it at the beginning of his book W ou le souvenir d’enfance (W or the Memory of Childhood) and, in his English translation of the book, David Bellos translates it as That mindless mist where shadows swirl, how could I pierce it? I have used Bellos’ translation, though he introduces an alliteration that is not there in the original.

Our narrator is Simon Schneider who, despite his name, is actually a native of Barcelona. He had been a translator, translating from Portuguese and French into Spanish. Actually, like much in this book, he was not quite what he seemed. Rather than a translator, he was what he called a pre-translator which meant that he anticipated the textual difficulties that the main translator would face and made suggestions for this other translator. This was not a very lucrative profession so he changed.

He now calls himself a hokusai. He cannot recall why he named it after the Japanese painter but it was perhaps because it reminded him of some Japanese person. His job consists of digging out quotations for what he calls a distant author. This author lives and works in the United States and has been very successful. The author uses the name Rainer Bros, his many fans call him Gran Bros and his real name is Rainer Schneider.

Yes, Rainer Bros is Simon’s younger brother, as we eventually find out. According to Simon, inevitably an unreliable narrator, Rainer was a very poor writer when he lived in Spain and wrote in Spanish. However, he emigrated to the United States and started writing in English. His first book was Each Age is a Pigeon-hole (the English title is given in the Spanish original). Simon, of course, claims much credit both for finding many of the quotations he uses and telling him how to write it.

Rainer is now the author of five books. They have sold well and he has a huge fan base. However, part of his success is that he is entirely reclusive à la Thomas Pynchon. One critic called him The spectral son of the author of Gravity’s Rainbow because he connected with the internal domains of Pynchonian madnesses.

Simon is able to communicate with him by email but has no idea where he is and has not seen him since he went to the United states, some twenty years ago. Moreover, when Rainer writes to him, he never calls him Simon or brother or anything similar, but uses terms like assistant, adviser and also the German word Gehülfe, which means assistant and may be a reference to Robert Walser‘s book of that name.

Is he really reclusive? Valeria, the cousin of the brothers, went to New York and claims to have seen him three times wandering around New York with an older woman. (There is a rumour that he has married a rich heiress.) Of course, Valeria may be an unreliable narrator as well. No-one else has seen him.

Simon has a love/hate relationship with his brother. He is bitter about his brother’s reclusion and the meagre pay he, SImon, receives. In some ways, he is bitter at his brother’s success while, at the same time, being somewhat proud.

He admires the way the critics praise him and, in particular, the one way he is apparently unique. He develops a theme and he then abandons it, jumping to another theme and also never finishing it. His fans wittily say Gran è mobile. Who is he like? Well, Simon/Vila-Matas jump around with this, comparing him to a mixture of Thomas Mann and John Ashbery. But then he quotes Queneau again in his view on Raymond Roussel: Roussel creates worlds with a power, an originality, a verve, that previously had been the sole preserve of God, saying that this describes Rainer. Other comparisons are later made.

Simon himself makes a bid for originality, saying he has invented a new form of criticism, whereby works of art would be judged solely on whether or not an author was aware that literature could no longer continue in the 21st century.

Simon himself does not have a happy life and tells us about this in some details, He lives in his parents’ old house but it is falling down but he does not have the means to repair it or get another one. He has few friends. Indeed, people, as he states, seem to disappear around him. He had a girlfriend, Siboney, his father’s former nurse, but she disappeared. The people in the village either don’t know or won’t say where she is. The same applied to Mr Worminghaus. Simon is sure that is the effect he has on people, including, of course, his parents and his brother. He is generally depressed, summing himself up in a quote from Victor Hugo: Je suis veuf, je suis seul, et sur moi le soir tombe (I am a widower, I am alone and the evening falls on me). Indeed, it is only the quotations that keep him in touch with reality, he says. He later says that he lives badly North of Barcelona and South of nothing.

Then he receives an email from his brother, saying that he is flying to Barcelona. His brother also lets him know that he is to write a new type of book, perhaps a non-fiction book, in which Simon dies.

As usual with Vila-Matas, this book is full of references to a wide variety of literature, primarily, though certainly not exclusively, US/Anglo-Irish literature. At the same time, there is a lot of discussion, in his usual post-modernist way. on literature, its purpose, its nature and how we relate to it.

All of this is enhanced by Simon’s extensive use of quotations. On his journey to Barcelona from his home in Cap de Creus to Barcelona (well over a hundred miles distant), much of which he makes on foot, he reflects on his life, his brother and literature and churns out numerous quotations to support whatever view he is expounding, mainly by talking to himself. He states that these quotations are often his only contact with reality. He also points out that other writers relied heavily on quotations, citing Georges Perec as a specific example.

However, as this is Vila-Matas, he cheats, quoting from fictitious books from real authors. He even repeats the story from Bartleby y compañía (Bartleby & Co.), about the man who met Pynchon on two separate occasion though, on each occasion, it was not the same man and, when challenged on the second occasion, told him that he would have to decide which of them was real (if either). The man, an English professor, was named and I checked with him. The story is a complete fabrication. It is a good story, though, and that is what matters to Vila-Matas.

Rainer is succesful but he has two detractors. The painter Vergés, presumably Carles Vergés i Lluís (link in Catalan), and the brothers’ aunt Victoria are highly critical of his talents, aunt Victoria calling him a shameful imitation of Salinger.

I have only touched on the key features, omitting life in Cap de Creus and Cadaqués, who really wrote Pynchon’s novels, the origin of the name Bros and Rainer’s meeting with Sonny Mehta, to mention just a few.

I have enjoyed everything I have read by Vila-Matas and, I must say, that I enjoyed this more than most. It is, as always with Vila-Matas, original, clever, witty, deceptive, very post-modern and quite different from most Spanish novels. I assume that it will soon appear in English.

First published in 2019 by Seix Barral
No English translation
Published in French in 2020 by Actes Sud
Translated by André Gabastou