Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
As readers, we are on a perpetual search for great books, but also for great authors. As editors, critics, and publishers, this is also true. But it is for readers especially, because we are all readers. And though it is impossible to define, precisely, what makes a great writer, we all know it when we see it. Enrique Vila-Matas is a great writer, and his new book Dublinesque is what great readers have been searching for.
Dublinesque is about Samuel Riba, a sixty year old man from Barcelona who sees himself as “the last publisher.” Actually, he’s retired, after publishing quality literature for thirty years, and destroying his vital organs with alcohol in the process. Now, he’s two years sober. If he drinks again, it could kill him, and his wife could leave him. His life goal was to find and publish and unknown genius. He considers his catalog to be his autobiography.
Since retiring, Riba spends most of his time on the computer, googling away. He likes to anonymously respond to blogs that are negative about the books he’s published. He laments the loss of what he calls the “talented reader,” suggesting that the death of the print age has arrived not due to the advent of digital media, but because readers are no longer capable of reading great literature. His wife Celia agrees, telling him that “people who regularly use Google gradually lose the ability to read literary works with any kind of depth, which serves to demonstrate how digital knowledge can be linked to the recent stupidity in the world.” Yet, like the rest of us, Riba is caught in between the two ages, “condemned to go from Gutenberg to Google, from Google to Gutenberg, moving back and forth between the two, between the world of books and that of the web.” Celia is becoming a Buddhist, and finds it pathetic that Riba sits in front of the computer all day, and that his life has no purpose without publishing and drinking. She encourages him to find an activity to bring enthusiasm back into his life.
Thinking of how James Joyce’s Ulysses was one of the greatest accomplishments of the age of Gutenberg, Riba forms the idea to hold a funeral for the age of print, mimicking the funeral held in chapter six of Ulysses. After a series of coincidences and “secret forces” keep nudging him toward Dublin, Riba recruits three of his writer friends and plans a trip to visit Prospect Cemetery (now Glasnevin cemetery) and ritually mourn the death of the Gutenberg age. Planning to read Philip Larkin’s poem “Dublinesque” as the core of his requiem for print, Riba’s thoughts become more obsessed with Irish writers, which he believes represent the golden age of printed literature.
Furthering his metaphor of the death of print, Riba suggests that if the Gutenberg age reached its “peak of its vitality in Joyce”—because, as his heir Samuel Becket stated, “Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more”—it was with Becket’s approach of taking away and subtracting that the decline of print began. In other words, the transition from Gutenberg to Google is a result of the transition from “the existence of the sacred (Joyce) to the somber era of the disappearance of God (Becket).” This is perhaps why Riba thinks he sees Becket haunting the streets of Dublin, and showing up at their mock funeral.
Despite Riba’s focus on Dublin, it is New York with which Riba is really obsessed, considering the city to be the center of the universe, and the only place where he could be happy. He frequently muses on his one trip to New York, and in particular his visit to Paul Auster’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was the last time Riba had a drink. Nevertheless, it is to Dublin he travels, even though he is afraid of fulfilling a premonition: that he will succumb to his demons and start drinking again, which, he knows will result in Celia leaving him.
Though that’s the theme (print vs. digital) and plot (the requiem for print in Dublin) of Dublinesque, rarely do plot and theme make a great book, much less a great writer. It is Vila-Matas’ style of writing that distinguishes him as one of the best living authors today, and what makes Dublinesuqe a must read book. Whereas self-indulgence is usually the biggest mistake for most North American writers, Vila-Matas’ indulgences are delightful, and his digressions make up the core of the book, allowing the reader to enter into Riba’s thought process. They also show off Vila-Matas’ talent and intelligence with lines like these:
“There is nothing else left but a great illiterate throng deliberately created by the powers that be, a kind of amorphous crowd that’s sunk us all into a general sate of mediocrity.”
“The time will come when the whole world will have turned into a businessman and an imbecile (by then, thank God, I will be dead). Our nephews and nieces will have a worse time. Future generations will be tremendously stupid and rude.”
If Vila-Matas sounds cynical, then don’t forget that his protagonist Riba is facing several life crises: the loss of meaning in his life after retirement; his need to drink, even if it kills him; and the deterioration of his marriage. Moreover, Riba believes his life a failure because he never found that genius he was searching for, that “writer truly able to dream in spite of the world; to structure the world in a different way. A great writer: at once anarchist and architect.”
Thankfully, for us readers, Enrique Vila-Matas is the genius that his protagonist was looking for.
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey
New Directions, June 2012