For anyone familiar with the novels of Spanish master Enrique Vila-Matas, his first collection of stories in English Vampire in Love is a welcome delight. These career-spanning stories, hand-picked and translated by renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa, leave no doubt Vila-Matas’ particular genius is merging the observable of the everyday with the possibility of invention. As in his novels, the line between narrator and author merge until the reader does not know (or care) whose voice is speaking.
These stories are replete with existential crises, frequently leading to self-realization or, just as often, utter confusion. In “The Hour of the Tired and Weary,” a man decides to follow a stranger who’s piqued his interest in the metro. The man quickly realizes the stranger he’s chosen to follow is following another stranger, and imagines how surprised the first stranger would be were he to “discover the spontaneous procession that has built up behind him.” Phone calls from strangers visit the protagonist of “Torre Del Mirador” who, like many of characters in these stories, is game to play, happy to interrupt the tedium and futility of life in order to experience an epiphany or a bump on the head. In life, the author seems to say, one choice is as good as any other, but we still have to make the choice.
In “Sea Swell,” the narrator, high on amphetamines, visits a friend in Paris who takes him to Marguerite Duras’s residence where they discuss renting her attic apartment. Introductions are made. Wine is opened. The narrator’s friend, Andrés, begins to talk about his belief that he came from Atlantis. “I read somewhere,” he said, “that when you’ve drunk a little, reality grows simpler, you can leap over the spaces in between things, everything seems to fall into place and you can say: yes, that’s it. Well, that is what has happened to me tonight.” The narrator, horrified but paralyzed by barbiturates, has no choice but to allow Andrés to rave about his supposed origins in this underwater world. The evening ends well enough, with Duras even accepting the narrator as a tenant. Yet the story’s conclusion is a surreal episode that, once unfolded, seems strangely inevitable.
Despite the obvious pleasure in these stories, darker tones drift throughout. Vila-Matas’ early career was spent under Franco, and the realities of life under a dictatorship sometimes emerge. “Greetings from Dante,” written in 1975, is a gem of horror and vitriol. A distraught mother can’t understand why her 10-year-old son refuses to speak, hasn’t spoken a word in his life. Franco eventually dies and, as the mother watches the dictator’s televised funeral, her son finally talks. Hearing his first words, the reader is suddenly confronted with a story that mixes horror, history, and possibly possession.
The settings of these stories are largely European cities, from Lisbon to Barcelona to Paris. As in Vila-Matas’ novels, there’s a sense of metropolitan life. Scenes take place in city streets, cafés, and apartment buildings.
Another standout is “They Should Say Who I Am,” which takes place in 1917 and is narrated by the devil himself. Facing a well-known artist, the devil challenges the authenticity of the artist’s paintings, claiming his work is unfaithful to its subjects. The conversation—closer to an argument or an inquiry—and the devil’s dogmatic claims of faithfulness to real life could easily be seen as complaints against Vila-Matas’ writing. Truth in art is a subject visited from multiple angles, the author clearly asserting that the truth of fiction is as valid as any reality, tenuous though they both are. Vila-Matas believes in the transcendence of literature; a world where books (and writing) offer the only possible solution in a world containing too many multitudes for a single life.
Vila-Matas has written about secret literary societies (A Brief History of Portable Literature), writers of “refusal” (Bartleby & Co.), his years as a struggling young author (Never Any End To Paris), and his own metafictional experiences (The Illogic of Kassel). He belongs to that clan who believe literature is in constant conversation with itself, thus invoking long-dead authors like Melville and Joyce and contemporaries such as Paul Auster, always careful not to exclude himself. He is a “literary” writer in that he is absorbed with literature; writers and writing are the major preoccupations of his work. In “Invented Memories,” he says as much:
Literature is like a message in a bottle because literature needs a recipient too, and so just as we know that someone, some unknown person, will read our shipwrecked sailor’s message, we also know that someone will read our literary writings, someone who will be not so much the intended recipient as an accomplice, insofar as he or she will be the one to give meaning to our writing. This is what allows every message to be added to, to acquire new meanings, to grow in resonance. And that is precisely what is so strange and fascinating about literature, that fact that it is not a static organism, but something that mutates with every reading, something that is constantly changing.
Indeed, the reader of these marvelous stories does feel more like an accomplice than a recipient. New Directions has done a great service publishing the novels and novellas of Vila-Matas. Now readers have the good fortune of his stories. Like Kafka, Sebald, and Pitol, Vila-Matas is a truth seeker, and like the best writers he uses the art of invention to find these truths. Vila-Matas is wise enough to know there are no answers in life; good writing is merely the artistry of asking good questions. Playful, highly accessible, and beautifully translated, the stories in Vampire in Love showcase a master writer who is happy to indulge the imagination and explore the possibilities of existence.
Vila-Matas tends to invoke comparisons to Borges and Perec—the metaphysical riddles, the mock histories, the literary in-jokes—and for good reason. Thoughtful readers understand that the writers who play these games are almost always the most serious.