Vila Matas’ novel describes a writer’s visit to the Kassel Documenta art-fair of 2012, where he is commissioned to write in a Chinese Restaurant, something he’s not terribly keen on. The writer in question is Vila Matas himself. Which instantly raises the question, is this a work of fiction or is it a factual account. Or is Illogic in Kassel in fact ‘faction’. The artists whose work the book describes in rigorous detail are real enough, as are the works of art themselves. One assumes, therefore, that Vila Matas’ commission was also real.This is the European nouveau-roman, one that uses the purported real as its point of departure, with a purportedly real author as the protagonist. It reads as much like a journal as a novel, and perhaps it’s the dissonance between what the writer writes and what he has the character of the writer say that lends the book a certain amount of dramatic tension. If the writer and the ‘writer’ are not one and the same person, which one is which and who is leading whom?
Although it has to be said, that dramatic tension is not there in spades. Rather this is another novel which mines the furrow of the writer’s ruminations. Some of which are engaging. Vila Matas is never short of a sideways glance at the world and its wives. However, the book lacks the easy, refreshing charm of Bartleby and Sons. Or perhaps its just that this reader currently has less patience for the meandering rhythm of a novel which sometimes feels like an anti-narrative. It feels as though the author is wallowing in the richest, most fertile of material: the relationship of art to the world; the shape of the avant-garde; the need for immediacy and urgency in art; all of the above and more; tickling the contradictions of conceptualism and the art market itself, which has become nothing more or less than the biggest market out there. The author’s there in the mud and muck of the early 21st century intellectual pretension (for better of for worse) but it’s never clear how this encounter affects him. At the end will he crawl out of the post-cordial slime a changed man? Or is this just cultural tourism dressed up as lamb?
This, for me, is where the act of storytelling might have been beneficial; whether or not the narrative the writer embellished reflected his views on the subject matter. Because as readers we discern meaning not just through observations and reflections, but also through the way in which the writer shapes these observations and reflections into a vision which is contained within story. Even a post-modern story where the author is protagonist. At times it feels as though Vila Matas hides behind his supposed transparency, and his real, contradictory feelings are stifled as he seeks to honour a commission he never really wanted in the first place.