In 1969, a young reporter named Enrique Vila-Matas was washing his hands in a hotel bathroom in San Sebastián. He was in the city to attend the famous film festival that he had in that edition as one of his main guests to the legendary director Fritz Lang with whom he coincided at that precise moment in the bathroom. Lang looked at himself in the mirror and changed his eye patch to the surprise of an astonished Vila-Matas. “C’est la vie, mon ami”, the director released. The real anecdote could seem like a short story by an author who knows how to combine fact and fiction, novel and essay. “Montevideo”, his latest novel, which has just been published by Seix Barral, is the return of a writer in a state of grace, a masterpiece in which he recovers some of his obsessions and incorporates some new ones with the help of Cortazar.
Where does “Montevideo” come from?
The origin goes back twenty years ago when I visit Argentina. Vlady Kociancich, a writer of Serbian origin who died this year and who had been the girlfriend of Bioy Casares and a close friend of Borges, told me about two stories that ran in parallel and were written at the same time: Cortázar’s “The Condemned Door” and “A Journey or The Immortal Magician” by Bioy. The two characters, Cortázar’s protagonist and Bioy’s narrator, travel to the same city, Montevideo, ending up in the same place, the Cervantes hotel. This would be the first origin. Then one day I went on the internet to find out about the hotel, meeting all the people who spoke badly about it because it was a seedy hotel. Later I wrote an article about him saying that if one day I went to Montevideo, I would like to visit the Cervantes hotel. Later, when I was able to go to the Cervantes, I asked for Cortázar’s room, but they didn’t know anything about it, behaving a bit strangely. I have always believed that what most interested the hotel was to revitalize the presence of Carlos Gardel, highlight that he was there. They didn’t give a damn about Cortázar. However, in the end they told me: “But, will tourists come if we put it on? The Japanese are very interested in these things.” At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist is a very indecisive guy who ends up dizzy with Paul Valéry and stops writing for three years. Things happen to him that have never happened to him before. That is when I came up with the idea of going to Montevideo. It is there where I propose, according to Beatriz Sarlo’s idea, the fusion between fiction and Cortázar’s door: to be in the real place and in the place of fiction looking at what is in the next room. It’s a very interesting point for me because I don’t know what is in the next room when I write this. I have to enter fantasy literature without knowing it.
Is this your first time entering this genre?
I had already done it in “The Illustrated Assassin”, something that was a long time ago because it is a book from 1977. Now I entered the fantastic without realizing it. I looked for “The other part” by Kubin, although later I thought it was the same that I didn’t read it. I didn’t use it. I also didn’t want to go into terror so as not to scare myself. It is true that I saw, at the same time, Lovecraft’s monsters and all of them, compared to the current cinema, seemed to me that they were not scary or anything. So I had to bring in my own monsters.
Cortázar also plays with the fantastic and the real.
Something that I have always liked very much is the so-called Buenos Aires story that is clearly Bioy Casares where Samanta Schweblin is undoubtedly the successor. I have always liked that union between reality and fiction so intermingled.
I really liked the end of the book in which the narrator asks his patient mother about the great mystery of the universe and she replies that “the great mystery of the universe was that there was a mystery of the universe”. Can the same be said of the great mystery in his literature?
Well, that’s something I’d like to. I remember a lot Nabokov’s story, I don’t remember the title now, in which someone reveals the secret of the world. My mother was very dizzy with the little angels, which I guessed right away, with the Three Wise Men, which I also guessed… I remember perfectly that my mother was in the kitchen and I said to her: “No angels, no Three Kings, and the Hell doesn’t exist either?” “Hell yes,” she told me. I’m speechless.
You stand in that space between reality and fiction.
I go to a place to be able to find out something about my work and to know what is happening at that moment. The first time I did this was when I dreamed that I was in New York and I was very happy surrounded by skyscrapers. A couple of years later I was invited to go to New York, I was in the hotel room where I had arrived alone, surrounded by skyscrapers. I looked out the window to see if I was very happy and no, nothing was wrong with me. So this is an investigation that comes from afar, looking for something. We all know that the engine of these books is to investigate something that also takes me very far.
Is fiction more comfortable?
Fiction is more comfortable to create and to be freer, but with the impediment that it happens to me. If you tell a dream you know that you can tell anything and everything is valid. That’s why I never count dreams in my books. People disconnect from a book if you tell a dream, said Juan Benet. The best thing is to control your freedom yourself. It’s like that person who always laughs and laughs: in the end it tires.
Is it better not to tell everything?
I like that phrase, but also one of Kafka’s that appears on the back of the Galaxia Gutenberg edition of his complete works, I think in the volume of “The process” and that says “tell me everything”. I love the phrase because it defines Kafka very well. On the other hand, as someone said, if you tell everything, it’s very boring. It is the paradox. On the other hand, there is a book by Emiliano Monge called “Count it all”, a title that caught my attention although I did not read it. We can link this with Josep Pla who climbs up to the Sant Sebastià lighthouse at a very young age ready to tell everything he sees from there, but he realizes that he cannot tell everything.
That Pla case reminds one of “Lieux”, Perec’s unpublished book that has just been published in France.
It is a tremendous book. It almost made me dizzy. I couldn’t read it all. It’s a lifelong project, visiting a neighborhood every four years, writing that down, and then going back there. It is unfinished because he died, but it was a project that he had in mind for fifteen years. It is a very interesting document.
The fifteen-year-old protagonist of “Montevideo” sees Mastroniani in “La notte” and that is what encourages him to be a writer.
Many writers are asked why they are writers and there is always this response of envy that gave them the image of having a book published. But really the origin comes, in my case, from when I wrote “El duende de Aragón” when I was five years old, with a drawing on the cover. I found it very recently at my parents’ house when they died. This vocation comes in part from the fact that I did this at my aunt Pilar’s house, on the floor. It was drawing and writing. The next thing I wrote was “The trip to Valencia”. I have come to the conclusion that all that was an attempt to expand, to get out of Catalonia. I see now that it was an attempt to see what is around me. It’s like when I asked my grandmother who lived in her building and she gave me a list of the neighbors. It is something typical of Perec.