As soon as I started reading Dublinesque, (longlisted for the 2012 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) I knew I was going to like it. The book’s main character is Riba Samuel, a publisher of literary books who fears the End of the World as we LitLovers know it, and I was On His Side straight away.
My support faltered only momentarily when I discovered that he was a Bit Odd. (To put it mildly).
But aren’t we all? The Rest of the World is triumphantly reading the silly vampire novels that Riba deplores, not to mention Fifty Shades and The Da Vinci Code, and like Riba’s parents, The Rest of the World has either never heard of James Joyce or Ulysses, or is dismissive of it, without ever having read it. Whereas those of who chuckle with delight at Dublinesque’s narrator’s countless allusions to great books and authors that we’ve read or plan to, are surely as odd as he is, in our own ways, are we not?
Anyway… The story begins with Samuel Riba feeling rather discontented. The impending triumph of dumbed-down digital books has made him decide to sell his publishing business, and the industry invitations to travel to interesting places have vanished. This is a serious problem for Riba because these trips are the sole basis of the conversations that he has with his parents on his weekly visits, and these parents are equally peeved when he fails to tell them about what was probably the last invitation he’ll ever get, a trip to Lyon to present his thoughts on the grave state of the publishing industry…
For it is not only Riba’s parents who are peeved – the good folk of Lyon never got to hear our hero’s thoughts either. Alas, he shot through without ever delivering his lecture. On arrival in the city he began concocting a theory of the novel in his mind – and then abandoned it, holding a private funeral for it in his hotel room. Fortunately for the reader, the narrator is able to advise us about its essential elements:
- a connection with serious poetry
- awareness of a moral landscape in ruins
- a slight favouring of style over plot
- a view of writing that moves forward like time.
Got that? Vila-Matas is playing with his readers, telling them how to judge his own novel… He is a sly presence throughout the book, poking fun at his character, mocking his surprised discovery that real people can be used in a novel, and occasionally unable to resist inserting himself in the first person. Quite apart from all the macabre jokes about deaths and funerals, Vila-Matas enjoys sabotaging his character in all kinds of ways. Nothing could be worse than being in a novel, Riba thinks, but of course he is, he’s in this one, Dublinesque, living his life as if it were a literary text’. (p.37)
In no time at all, I was playing Do You Recognise This Allusion?
- Julien Gracq? I’ve read The Balcony in The Forest, but not The Opposing Shore.
- Les Surfs? Huh? (Is this a typo for Smurfs, LOL?)
- Claudio Magris? The Infinite Journey? No, but I wish I had, all the smart people at GoodReads have rated it 5 stars.
- David Cronenburg’s film Spider? Sorry, no.
- The Coxwold, a pub in Dublin? I don’t remember this from Ulysses, I’m dubious.
- Robert Walser author of Jakob von Gunten? No, that’s another one with a 5 star rating at GR.
- A song by Bob Dylan? If I ever knew the words of Bob Dylan songs, I’ve forgotten them.
Fortunately I did better with Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Shakespeare (Macbeth) – though knowing only Endgame and Waiting for Godot, I couldn’t resist a diversion to read Worstward Ho. What fun reading can be sometimes!
And that’s only up to page 30.
Back on track, I found Riba (‘the Outsider’) manipulating his pals Javier, Ricardo, and Nietsky (*chuckle*) into agreeing to make a visit to Dublin on Bloomsday, so that the four of them correspond to Bloom, Simon Daedalus, Martin Cunningham and John Power. There is some very droll commentary about Riba needing to abandon his devotion to French literature (because it was, after all, in France that Ulysses was published, and France which gave James Joyce the creative freedom to write). He must, Ricardo says, make a leap into Irish literature, the irony being that so many of Ireland’s great writers have made their name by abandoning Ireland forever.
With his suspicious wife Celia, Riba is evasive about his plans. She’s rather worried about him: she’s toying with becoming a Buddhist but we suspect there’s a bit of bad karma around their relationship. She fears he has become what the Japanese call hikikomori, suffering from IT autism, isolating themselves and withdrawing from society 24/7. She tries to warn him off by telling him that ‘people who use Google gradually lose the ability to read literary works in any kind of depth’ (p. 47) but he justifies to himself that it’s good for his mental health to spend all his time ‘trolling’ comments and reviews that are critical of the books he’s published.
To only one of his pals does he reveal his plan to hold a funeral for the death of the Gutenbery Galaxy at – yes, you guessed it if you know your Ulysses - the same place as Paddy Dignam’s funeral. But, oh delicious irony, Riba goes off for Ireland in trepidation because, a recovering alcoholic, he fears he will fall ‘off the wagon’. No, I’m not going to tell you if he does or not…
It seems to me that readers will read this book very differently, depending on which allusions they recognise. I could interpret a sly reference to black and white tiles because I’ve been to Lisbon where these perilously slippery tiles lie in wait all over the city. But I’m sure there must be allusions to Finnegans Wake which I haven’t yet read, and all sorts of other things besides. I suspect that like Ulysses itself, and Molloy, while Dublinesque can be read without any ‘prerequisites’ repeated readings will be rewarding if I succeed in making my way through the reading list now set me by this delicious novel.
There are many erudite reviews of Dublinesque online, and you can also check out the Shadow IFFP Jury’s reviews including Stu’s but I liked this one that I stumbled onto when (*blush*) I Googled ‘Samuel Riba/Riba Samuel’. Because I’m sure there’s more to this name than meets the eye, but I can’t quite identify it…
PS I hope these ramblings of mine make sense: I put my back out on the weekend and the doc has put me on some amazing painkillers. Some of this was written last week when my brain was working normally, and some of it has been written on my knees because I can’t sit for any length of time at my desk!
PPS To see reviews of other titles on the IFFP Longlist, click the Shadow Jury logo (designed by Stu from Winston’s Dad).
Author: Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne Mclean
Publisher: Harville Secker (Random House) 2012
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings Carlton $24.95