NOTE: This post was first published on my blog in October 2016
There’s a radio advert for a book festival in Dublin which tells listeners that you never know what will happen when you open a book. The selection of stories ‘Vampire in Love’ by Enrique Vila-Matas is testament to this. Translated by the great Margaret Jull Costa and published by the innovate Andotherstories this collection showcases some of Vila-Matas’ finest stories. From the opening ‘A Permanent Home’ which is as unsettling as it is disturbing, to the witty ‘I’m not going to read any more emails’, the play with language and play on words forms a thrilling part of the read. The way in which Vila-Matas uses time to keep us (as readers) on our toes puts me in mind of the work of another Catalan writer, Jaume Cabré, and, of course, Roberto Bolaño.
Vila-Matas has stated in an interview with the Paris Review that
What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures…
This interest is clearly evident in ‘Vampire in Love’ where the narratives flick and flash back and forth between reality and truth, with the questioning of perception prominent throughout the collection. Yet his use of language is also poetic. In one of my favourite stories, ‘Rosa Schwarzer comes back to life’, a sinister painting comes (or seems to come) to life, creating creates an epiphany moment for Rosa who is grossly unappreciated by her family.
The coffee brought her almost savagely awake, and, for a moment, as if it were a brief foretaste of what she would experience at the museum today, she saw in her mind the remote landscapes of that dark foreign prince’s country.
It is this beautiful mix of the every day sensory experience with the dreamscape seeping into the reality of both the character and that of the reader that I found so special. In another scene in this story we are presented with a picture of Rosa’s plummeting emotions where the landscape echoes her inner state:
The sky was a grubby opaque white colour, and, in her mind, a similar opaque whiteness began erasing the memory of what she had experienced with the night owl, whom she had abandoned in the park.
These emotions are later displayed – though bluntly go unnoticed by her husband and sons:
‘What’s for supper?’ demanded her son Bernd from the sofa.
‘Death,’ she said. ‘Death.’
She said this so quietly, from the solitude of her kitchen, that they didn’t hear, just as they didn’t hear, at that same moment, a chicken having its throat slit.
Opening lines that hook you are another feature of the collection. Take this loaded first sentence (from ‘In Search of The Electrifying Double Act’):
One April afternoon some years ago, when my name was still Mempo Lesmes and I was very young and a starving, unknown actor, I got lost in the labyrinthine outskirts of San Anfiero de Granzara, and I came across a large mansion surrounded by an overgrown garden – the Villa Nemo.
Or consider the theme of memory that ripples through these stories: this from the fantastic tiny story ‘Indentifying Marks’ –
I remember nothing of that year except that elections were held, and someone, on a night that seemed to me interminable, swore blind that I was Catalan.
And the strong sense of place, from ‘Invented Memories’:
I remember that on my trip to the Azores, I visited Peter’s Bar in Horta, a café frequented by whalers near the yachting club; a mixture of inn, meeting place, information centre and post office.
For Vila-Matas, concepts of place and that never-ending search for something – in art, literature, cinema – as an integral part of the urban existence is often what drives the narrative arc. In the title story (‘Vampire in Love’) the vampire – our hero – thinks:
We look for distant people who are often to be found much closer to home; in movies, we look for the vampires that exist inside us.
The truth about people is often intertwined with history and place, as in the subtext of Franco’s Spain that runs through the chilling (yet at times amusing) ‘Greetings from Dante’ in which the father-narrator reveals his profound fear for and hate of his son whilst maintaining his fatherly role of trying to discover why the child – Tito – is mute. In conversation with a psychoanalyst the father discovers that in the sixteenth century, in their neighbourhood, a Portuguese student was revealed to be a demon when he was seen eating a bowl of flies. Unnervingly, Tito’s sister who is patient and understanding of his muteness often proclaimed ‘A shut mouth catches no flies’ and on this occasion (without knowing the history which the father has discovered) changes the proverb to ‘Tito’s mouth is full of flies.’ Violence ensues and so the story goes on – the mysterious sense of the streets taking in and then letting out evil pervades. Similarly in ‘Niño’, where the narrator/father maintains the position of the niño’s ‘attentive assistant’ despite the uncomfortable dislike for his son who, like him, in trying to survive, searches for the truth and attempts to face the void that is life (and death):
‘We’ll find out the truth about the beyond,’ he said.
‘Be careful,’ I warned. ‘Those who seek the truth deserve the punishment of finding it.’
The collection is also very much a writer’s book. I particularly loved the sense of voyeurism, obsessiveness and vanity that peppers the characters of Vila-Matas. In the fantastical ‘Modesty’ (my favourite story in the collection), we meet an occasional spy who, in this quote, is observing the No. 24 thief (so called because he operates on the No. 24 bus):
He doesn’t seem interested in any other route or any other bus. He must simply enjoy – as I do – being a regular, or perhaps he simply loves doing the same thing over and over. He’s not unlike me in a way: we are both of us thieves. Of course, he steals wallets and purses, while I only snatch phrases, faces, gestures…
In ‘Death by Suadade’, the narrator recalls – when he was nine – how the growth of curiosity about where he lived, and what made the place itself became his sole occupation:
The street began to steal a whole hour of my homework time, an hour that I recovered thanks to the simple method of cutting down the time I usually spent after supper reading great novels, until the day came when the charms of the Paseo de San Luis proved so alluring that they stole all my reading time. In other words, the Paseo replaced great novels.
I also recall spending hours – at a little older than nine though – staring through open windows, imagining the lives of others.
I read the collection from start to finish, and although many of the characters seemed to have merged into one by the time I had finished, on reflection it is the emotional weight which carries the book. Ultimately it is the re-imagining of the lives of ‘the other’ and of others that this story collection presents to the reader. ‘Vampire in Love’ is a book which gives us an escape; enabling us to dive into the pages, the minds, and the lives of characters who might well have come from our own dreams.