In the crazy salad of literary novelties that autumn brings, there are names that stand out undeniably and one of them is Enrique Vila-Matas. The Catalan writer returns to bookstores with Montevideo (Seix Barral), a novel about the meeting points of reality and fiction, which takes as a reference the story The condemned door of Julio Cortazar. Or about the search for his own literary style that takes the protagonist to the Cervantes hotel, where the author of Hopscotch locates the hidden opening behind the wardrobe in room 205, but also to Paris, Reykjavík, Cascais or Bogotá.
Vila-Matas faces the promotional tour for his new book, which has begun in Barcelona, with renewed momentum after the kidney transplant operation he underwent a few months ago. Her donor was her spouse, Paula Massot, also known as Paula of Parma in her book dedications, which are always for her. Sitting on the terrace where this talk is taking place, the writer comments that "a tremendous month ahead" awaits him, although he is amused because he hasn't gone out much either after all the things that have happened to him. "It's very good for me to meet other people and be in other places," he says as they serve him the café con leche.
You wrote Montevideo at a time marked by the pandemic and also by your operation. How have these events influenced the novel?
When I arrived from the hospital, I had already completed the entire writing of the book and after this extreme experience I returned with much more power of concentration, reflection, depth. Maybe I was fooling myself, but I felt more attached to the text and that's where a very fun job began because the structure was already done and I didn't have to think about creating it anymore. It was like working on a painting that you've already painted and that you want to complete, you add amazing things that you didn't know and improve it, so the end result is very good. In any case, I have to say that if you work hard on a novel, like this one, possibly what happens is that it comes out better. On other occasions, the result could have been better if I had bothered more [risa].
Why do you recover this story of the Hotel Cervantes and Cortázar's The Condemned Door? He had already written on the subject before.
I recover it because every novel has to seek an objective and I found it in a phrase by the Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo, who says that reality and fiction are connected in that story. So I thought I'd see what that place was like. It is an almost lost objective, because surely what he was going to see was a door, but the novel narrates what leads the protagonist to travel there, to ask for room 205 of the hotel where Cortázar had been and cross the threshold to the other side. And there begins a somewhat convulsive journey.
The novel is titled Montevideo but it begins and ends in Paris. What does that city have that marks you so much?
It was involuntary. I was in Barcelona writing but I realized that my mind was in Paris. The paradox is that it is called Montevideo, but at one point in the novel the narrator is in three different places through a machine that he has on his mobile: Switzerland, Bogotá, which is hell, and above all in Paris. It is a very interesting moment technically, I did work a lot on that.
The two years I spent in Paris, even though I've been back many times since and have many connections, were very decisive. They were the first ones in which I lived alone, because first I had lived with my parents and then in flats accompanied in Barcelona. But there I found myself alone, in a city I did not know and now I can see that all my literary, cultural and existential training was formed there.
The protagonist understands that writing "forces you to stop pretending to be a writer." Are there many people who are writers but are not?
Yes, I have met people who have written very bad things and they present themselves as writers and you think, but what does he talk about in his books? Actually, they have nothing to do with the history of literature, which has a long time and they believe that everything starts now.
The origin of this phrase is very funny. I wrote an article for a French magazine of the European Parliament, but independent, that put into discussion what was decided in the institution. The translator made a mistake when translating the title, which was "to write is to stop pretending to be a writer" and put "to write is to stop being a writer". It is so good that it had thousands of visits on the internet.
Like the protagonist of Montevideo, you had your own room in an exhibition at the Pompidou in Paris, in your case by the artist Dominique González-Foerster What was inside?
What I say in the book: a red suitcase. Do you think it's true or not?
I don't know, tell me.
True true. It is because of something that had happened to me in a hotel in Toulouse and that I place in Montevideo in the book. I went to a literary festival and when I entered the hotel room everything was perfect, only there was a red, feminine-looking suitcase. It had never happened to me and I didn't really know what to do, so in the end I deposited it at the reception. But at night, when she was in her deepest sleep, a woman pounded on the door, shouting in English that she wanted to come in. I approached the door almost in a dream and I noticed her breathing, her anger and I didn't open it because I could find anything. My theory is that she had gotten into a fight with someone in that room, she had left and come back for her suitcase. Then I told Dominique González-Foerster, who is a friend of mine and is a bit of a double for Madeleine Moore, but without being evil.
But the interesting thing about this room is that it could be the real room that we don't know about ourselves. At the same time, I realized that the whole book is a Virginia Woolf-esque search for a room of one's own. I wrote the phrase but I am not clear at all what it means.
It is curious, because for the protagonist that room of one's own is hell, but Virginia Woolf thought of 'one's room' as a place where women could create. Why is it a dungeon for men and a refuge for women?
Well, I leave the possibility open, which is what they have given me. I wrote the sentence instinctively, throughout the book the narrator is supposed to look for his style and never quite find it. Writing is the search for something that you will not find for sure.
The protagonist hates Bartleby's "I'd rather not" phrase because it haunts him. Does it happen to you with something you've written?
No, what happens is that I am translated into 37 languages and internationally my name always appears linked to books such as Paris never ends or with Bartleby and company, to the texts that have had the greatest impact. But drama is for those writers who are not after any title. This comforts me, although I would prefer to be known as the author of Chet Baker Thinks About His Art, which is a much more difficult book but better in terms of risk, but this never happens because the journalist will not dare to put an unknown title.
But it's also a storytelling theme, someone who's tired of the phrase "I'd rather not." It has become a cliché, which is not bad that it exists, but it seems to me that it has to be turned around a bit because it is already a cliché.
The book is littered with things that he experienced: he was at the Cervantes Hotel, the Pompidou room, the red suitcase... He is fed up with all of us journalists asking him about autofiction, but he puts it on a silver platter, almost It seems like a provocation.
It's just that it's all fiction, because the self is not biographical, it's a character who lives in an avatar. I play that the reader can think that the protagonist is me and that makes him advance, attracts him, but I am not.
I also want to remain free of complexes in the sense that I tell things that have happened to me and others that have not and I do everything I want, because the book is open, free at last. That is why I have started a fight against autofiction [risa], because at this point I don't mind arguing about this. The autofiction thing is a French university thing from the last century that had a certain success.
Can be that the term is used as a commercial claim by some publishers?
And the worst thing is that some idiots in this country use it to say that it is a horror, that it follows fashion. There are people who write fictions very well and others who don't, and those who discover autofictions to degrade the author are wrong. It is necessary to understand that autofiction is a redundancy because the word fiction is already included.
It is true that it seems very easy and there is no expense. When I was young, I wanted to make movies and my father gave me the money to make a short film in Cadaqués, which dealt with the destruction of the family. After the premiere, my father told me that he was never going to produce a film of mine again. Then I saw that if he wanted to make movies, he had to find a producer and that it was going to be very complicated. So when I was doing my military service in Melilla I began to write with a typewriter that was in the grocery store where I worked and I saw that a lot of investment was not necessary.
But what was it that led him to the typewriter?
I already had a relationship with literature, because at the age of five I wrote some stories that my family keeps. But he also had the feeling of wasting his time for a year. I came with a tremendous report from Barcelona because I had been in the Tancada de Montserrat against the Burgos Process and therefore I was listed as an ETA member, directly, and also as a drug addict. He had no right other than to be in the grocery store and he couldn't handle weapons. Which was great because I didn't have to spend a whole night at the border with a rifle. It's what life has, that in the end bad things still free you from others.
We are in full rentrée, with a flurry of news. Are you aware of what is published?
Yes, yes, I am very interested. I'm not going to name names, because I know so many writers at this point that it's better not to get into this so as not to have conflicts.
The journalist Peio H. Riaño commented On twitter that a publisher of small size could take out 19 titles in four months Is too much published in Spain?
Publishers, for years, have had to publish a number of books whether they are good or bad. And now with the crisis it has increased even more, which means that many times I even come across books that I don't know who wrote them, something that didn't happen to me before.
Enrique Murillo, a former editor who is a bit outside the publishing world, explained in an interview that this abundance has the aggravating factor that critics treat the first books very well. That seems good to me also to encourage people, but in the end you don't know if the title is good or not.
In the book he talks about five narrative tendencies. The fifth is that of those who have surrendered to technology and are making the writing profession expendable. Does this category really exist or is it a hyperbole that is allowed in the novel?
It is an idea of a future in which the Internet will be so powerful that the writer will have to write what is there, it will be at the service of what has already been published. It will be like a hacker, it is the idea that writing used to be by hand and now it has changed so much that it can be a bit mechanical. If this occurs, the writers will be like bureaucrats.
And, within these five trends, in which one could you place yourself now?
Well there must be more than five [risas] but the most interesting is that of deliberately not saying anything.