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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Book review: Enrique Vila-Matas’s Vampire in Love – monstrous humans and human monsters

The Spanish novelist is a master of the peculiar and grotesque, cutting his prose with fragments of the supernatural, but his latest work really does lack life.
Gothic gargoyle at the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona – author Enrique Vila-Matas’s home city. Courtesy Tetra Images
Gothic gargoyle at the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona – author Enrique Vila-Matas’s home city. Courtesy Tetra Images

The Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas is magnetised by the possibilities of misdirection. Over the past 40 years and more, he has produced a body of work that routinely disrupts and teases the expectations of not just the characters of its pages, but of the readers. He equips both with shreds of certainty, wisps of desire, then sends them spinning into a world of blurred categories, strange tempos, multiplying selves, confused identities. His are lands in which everything is contested, and where absences – whether in the form of romantic loss, thwarted hopes, memory, failure or death – are pervasive, patient, often inevitable.

Readers who have been revelling in this peculiar terrain by way of English translations of Vila-Matas’s major novels (these have now been appearing for more than a decade) might be relieved to hear that his short stories, as they come to us in this selection (newly translated by Margaret Jull Costa), transport us to the same kinds of environment. The tales of which Vampire in Love is composed are full of fragmented identities, potent dreams, monstrous humans and human monsters.

In the opening story of the collection, A Permanent Home, a young man recalls being summoned to his father’s deathbed to be apprised of the circumstances that led, two days after his birth, to his mother’s murder. It transpires that his father had wanted to make the narrator’s mother (Diana) his third wife because of her naivety and docility, and because she “had the most sensual lower lip in the entire universe”.

On marrying her, however, he became unsettled by the discovery that she was an assiduous collector of an assortment of bread rolls; that she would issue him with military orders in her sleep; that she would come to treat him, while waking, as a male general might treat his troops. In order to free himself from this confounding of boundaries, he tells his son, he murdered her. Or did he? Perhaps he made it all up and simply wanted to bequeath to his son “the house of fiction and the pleasure of taking up residence there”.

In Greetings from Dante, a mother recalls the years of her life she has devoted to a son who, not out of disability but through choice, has never uttered a word; who specialises in a kind of domestic terrorism; and is responsible for the imprisonment of his father. The only sound the son makes – he is described as one who never wanted to “embark upon the human adventure of the word” – is a shriek that resembles that of a bat. She sometimes believes he might be one; wonders if she is going mad; mourns the loss of a happy life. And then one day... .

In Vampire in Love, which is set in Spain but takes place against the background of the early days of Russian space exploration, José Ferrato has been dreaming of a donkey that resembles a greyhound with human feet. He wakes, sees himself as the creature, and sets out for the local cathedral in search of a beautiful boy who represents evil. As he makes his way to him we learn that Ferrato is a vampire and an ugly hunchback; that he has learned to compensate for his appearance by adopting impeccable manners and showing exceptional kindness; that he feels the world is drifting away from him; that his commitment to human solidarity is fragile; that he longs to take flight among angels. When he arrives at the cathedral he attempts to kill himself.

You get the idea. There are occasions on which this trickiness is good fun, elegantly handled and stimulating. But more often the stories collected here feel like fragments of inspiration that have been cast on to the page with little attention to form, a complacent lack of intellectual rigour, and a near total disregard for precision and resonance of expression.

Indeed, this is a book whose dominant mode is that of inattentiveness. It is as if Vila-Matas believes that, when it comes to the short story, a gnomic or a quirky conceit is a good one, and that the demands of the form stop there.

This is a pity, for in the midst of these stories there lurks the ghost of an idea about the human need for story, language, pattern, and about the relationship between fiction and reality that, in earlier volumes, Vila-Matas has brought to vibrant, fully-faceted, strenuously modelled life. The present work feels dead by comparison.

Matthew Adams also writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.