“Giving in to technology is making the writer’s craft expendable”

Enrique Vila-Matas

 © Manuel Medir

Enrique Vila-Matas (Barcelona, 1949) has created a literary universe of his own. His writing captures and universalises, through subjectivity, the troubled air of his time. This is demonstrated by the fact that he is one of the most widely translated and internationally acclaimed authors. In 1973, he launched his publishing career with Mujer ante el espejo contemplando el paisaje (Woman in Front of the Mirror Contemplating the Landscape), in the publishing house that had just been set up by Beatriz de Moura and Oscar Tusquets. Fifty years later, Vila-Matas once again stands in front of the mirror, contemplating Vila-Matas: “Perhaps the most appealing thing about making literature today lies in the marvellous fact that language is not something that merely recreates reality, but something that constructs and deconstructs it, makes and unmakes it through an inevitable subjectivity.”

You published your first book 50 years ago. But, since you don’t like round numbers, when did you realise you were a writer?

The moment must have escaped me, perhaps because I started writing without any sense of reason. Or no, wait. There was a time when I sensed that one day I might feel like a writer. I was already on my fourth published book, Nunca voy al cine [I Never Go to the Cinema], written at Paco Monge’s house in Mallorca. While I was composing the stories at a round table, I was aware that one day, a few years down the line, I might be able to make them better. And, mark you, it wasn’t long ago. One night last April, someone was interested in finding out at what point I had felt like a writer. I was taken by surprise and I gave them four or five different answers that I didn’t find satisfying whatsoever, because I don’t think I’ve ever felt like a writer. I don’t think it’s ever happened to me. It would even be a bit odd if it had, considering that Kafka, for example, said that his writing, his work, was only there to lead to the pursuit of the work.

In those years your passion was cinema. What made you opt for literature?

Ugh, all I know is that, at the age of fourteen, from watching films “not suitable for minors” at the Texas cinema on Carrer Bailén, I wrote a short detective novel in which I pitted Bien [Good] against Mal [Evil]. I took the beginning of the action from the opening of The Maltese Falcon, John Huston’s first film. A private detective receives a phone call in the middle of the night and, immediately, a complicated plot is set in motion. Bien was one of my mother’s siblings, and Mal was another one of them. I called it Sus dos tíos [His Two Uncles] and it was set in the western Congo. My uncle, the alleged scoundrel in my little book, was downhearted when he read it to me. A few days later, I was forced, out of family compulsion, to study law, which did not appeal to me at all. To make up for my frustration, I was allowed to enrol in the School of Journalism in the afternoons. So I did not have to lose the thread of writing.

Are you the Vila-Matas who organised a festival in which Pau Riba made his debut?

In my first year of journalism I was appointed culture representative. I thought I had to organise something and I came up with the idea of organising a competition for Catalan singer-songwriters of my generation. We called it the Festival, as if it were the Benidorm Festival. Among the young people was Pau Riba, very much a budding artist at the time, the Pau of the time before he travelled to Formentera. He won by popular vote, and he caused quite a stir on account of his long hair and the way he dressed (now he would look like a gentleman to us), and, above all, because of his lyrics. I remember Professor Carlos Nadal, a prominent journalist from La Vanguardia, asking me how Carles Riba’s grandson could have written such absurd lyrics. At the Festival’s subsequent edition, a hitherto unknown Sisa not only picked up the first prize, but dazzled everyone.

What was Barcelona like in the 1970s?

My impression is that, in those days, something very powerful, as if it emerged from the ghost of May ‘68, which nobody really knew anything about, was awakening and set in motion.

How do you see it half a century later?

Barcelona has changed enormously, and so has the world. In a novel about Europe’s memory loss, a crazy and brilliant Bulgarian book I have just read, Georgi Gospodinov’s Time Shelter, there is a clinic in Zurich for Alzheimer’s patients whose facilities recreated the various decades of the 20th century in intricate detail, allowing patients to go back in time to revisit the years of their prime. In this Swiss clinic, each EU country chooses their favourite decade, the one it remembers best.

Which years would you pick?

If I were asked to choose Barcelona’s best years, I would choose the period from 1977 (the world of the painter Ocaña and the uprising on the Ramblas as the main image of that huge explosion of freedom) to May 1980, when Pujol arrived. It was a powerful Barcelona, long before the Manolos sang that “Barcelona is powerful, its Passeig de Gràcia is its power”. Now the boulevard is a prissy boulevard for tourists on the wreck of the Titanic, a thoroughfare that has lost its charm and is home to fashionable brands that emulate the names of suppositories.

And in the literary field?

I cannot separate the enormous changes that have come to pass from my personal life, in which literature plays a pivotal role. And, as I find it difficult to separate them, I would say that, after a very busy half-century, the only thing that remains for me is the upper part of Passeig de Sant Joan, which still lives on in my memory. Partly because of La calle Rimbaud [Rimbaud Street], which is the only one of my texts that touches on my childhood and one of the ones I hold most dear, perhaps because I feel it to be so deeply mine, just as I clearly feel that it is indestructible because it is so profoundly authentic. I associate it with Hemingway’s advice to young fledgling writers in a famous interview published in 1954 by The Paris Review: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know and then go on from there.”

What does Vila-Matas see in the mirror, contemplating that Vila-Matas?

Fortunately for me, not all past times were better. Contrary to what many people assume, our era is a fascinating time for the practice of literature. Perhaps the most appealing thing about it nowadays – even though we always talk about literature having to overcome its own demise, the death of the author, of the text and of language – lies in the marvellous fact that language is not something that merely recreates reality, but something that constructs and deconstructs it, makes and unmakes it through an inevitable subjectivity. And this, I think, places us in a world of extreme, endless possibilities…

Of course, of late, the much talked-about artificial intelligence has further complicated the future role of writers. But since I read Tom McCarthy saying something on the subject, I had already anticipated this and it doesn’t scare me in the slightest. On the contrary, it encourages me to keep going, knowing that I am heading towards silence, which for me means having to cross Sioux territory, an enthralling path, however far it may be from the cultural scene in which I grew up and that sought constant innovation.

If the cultural scene that sought constant innovation has vanished, do you feel lonelier now? Have you ever experienced the anxiety of originality that Harold Bloom spoke of?

No anxiety at all. I feel supported by contemporary authors I feel close to me. I have been resisting since I was a child, ever since I managed to open my eyes day after day and ask myself what I am going to do in the next few hours. And, as I was saying, since I read Tom McCarthy, I had already foreseen the complicated role that awaits writers.

It doesn’t scare me in the slightest and I even announce it in the first pages of my novel Montevideo, where I identify five dominant narrative trends for the coming times: those who have nothing to recount; those who deliberately recount nothing; those who don’t recount everything; those who hope that God will recount everything some day, including why he is so imperfect; and those who have given in to the power of technology, which seems to be transcribing and recording everything and, therefore, reducing the writer’s craft to the point of being expendable.


The adjective “expendable” may elicit understandable apprehension, but I wouldn’t pay too much heed to it. If our current climate is fascinating for literature, it is because, if we take a good look at it, we will see that, somehow, everything is becoming writing. Edward Snowden, as McCarthy was telling Antonio Lozano the other day, has been instrumental in making us aware of this: we walk down a street and there is a record of our movement there on some computer in a vault in the middle of the Nevada desert. The crucial political issue is almost a question of literature itself: what is recorded and who has access to read it? In this age, writing and reading have had their role reinforced. Of course, someone will say: “Oh, but, on the other hand, we are heading towards the disappearance of literature”. Well, but that’s what the whole of Samuel Beckett’s work, for example, is about. Not to mention Blanchot, my admired Blanchot, who suggested that the idea of writing was absurd, that one should aspire to silence. “There is little left to say,” wrote Beckett. “How can we make ourselves disappear?” wondered Blanchot. We know more and more every day about what we will do to disappear. To disappear, we will write. “One writes to watch a fly die”, said Marguerite Duras.

 © Manuel Medir © Manuel Medir

Poetry first, then theatre and the novel from the 19th century onwards marked the sensibilities of their times. Today, art and literature, in general, seem to have taken a back seat in favour of filmed stories and music. His writing cannot be transposed to the language of film, unless the director is David Lynch or Béla Tarr. In your latest book, Montevideo, you have shattered the conventions of the genre and made the writing breathe like a living creature. If you agree, is that what you intended?

I realised that it was what I was looking for when, on leaving the Hospital Clínic, I began to edit, with surprisingly greater enthusiasm every day, the tentative initial draft of Montevideo. I had finished that draft before I was admitted to hospital in December 2021 to receive a kidney transplant, more than generously donated by Paula, my dearest wife for so many years. As I edited, as I rewrote, I was baffled by this growing enthusiasm, as I had never experienced it before, although, of course, I kept on tuning and tweaking and adding to the details (something unusual for me too, as I have always written in haste). And as I continued the new Montevideo, I saw how, at the same time, both the author and the book became increasingly more alive.

Perhaps the almost indiscernible slight daily improvement in my health influenced the growing attraction I felt for the draft I was editing and which, at times, like my body, seemed to progress and improve on its own. Towards the final pages, after escaping the hell of Bogotá (from a room in the Beaubourg in Paris overlooking the Swiss town of St. Gallen), I wrote excitedly, and so I drifted into the theme of rising: “You have become in recent times a writer to whom things really happen. I hope you understand that your fate is that of a man who should already be longing to rise, to be reborn, to be again. I repeat: to rise. Your fate is in your hands, the key to the new door.”

This brings us to the eternal debate of the fictions of reality and the reality of fictions. You address key issues of our time, the identity crisis, the multiverse of realities, memory loss, the death drive, the suspicion that a power external to you is directing your life (the algorithm? the unconscious?) with more depth than narrative realism, which disregards what is beyond the optical reality. What do you think?

It brings me back to Nietzsche, by all means. I am reminded of what he shouted with terminal lucidity from his window in Turin: that to be truly contemporary you have to be untimely, slightly out of date. I believe that I have always tried to be so, extemporaneous. And even more so now, when some wonder whether “difficult” works will disappear in a publishing world that fears being ruined by the “experimental”. “Why do you quote so much,” I am sometimes asked. Partly, I say, to help maintain, in whatever way I can, the connection with the achievements and lessons of the history of world literature.

Some of the authors that are your reference points are inseparable from their cities. Borges, Buenos Aires; Kafka, Prague; Joyce, Dublin… You have blurred the place from where you write, without it being a non-place either, but rather you have created a place of your own. How would you describe Vila-Matas’ ground zero?

Without ever leaving Barcelona, I wrote Montevideo as if I were in Paris. It wasn’t deliberate. My mind simply didn’t move from there, but I realised this when the book had been finished. However, on the last page, Barcelona is not exactly missing. As for my ground zero, I wouldn’t be able to say, I’m not good at descriptions and, besides, I suspect it’s freezing there.

Could you outline the map of your sentimental Barcelona?

It is a vertical journey, from the north to the south of the city. A journey in which I always manage to be able to pass through Passeig de Sant Joan. I go to the same place where, on the eve of San Juan, the so-called Pijoaparte emerged from the shadows of his neighbourhood and walked down the road from El Carmel. And from there I descend to the unavoidable Ramblas, which once meant everything to me. Those were times when a brutally local people were the only spectacle, a huge river of humanity and madness that flowed down to the sea, as can still be seen in the great city of Naples.

Did you choose the Escola Industrial [School of Industrial Engineering], on Carrer del Comte d’Urgell for the photo shoot, for any specific reason?

Because it is close to where I live and the architect who created it was none other than Rafael Guastavino, who, many years later, built the arching dome of Grand Central Station. So the Escola is my personal, glamorous connection to New York. For photographs, it abounds with décor of all kinds, some even futuristic, because Guastavino was something of a genius… But then again he was a hustler too. Another reason to have chosen it: Philipp Engel introduced me to the photogenic nature of the Escola on the day he invited me to meet him under the clock. “What clock?”, I asked.

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