Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2013

Dublinesque (2010), by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne Mclean

DublinesqueShadow IFFP badge 2013As 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 us 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:

  • intertextuality
  • 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
Title: Dublinesque
Translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne Mclean
Publisher: Harville Secker (Random House) 2012, first published 2010
ISBN: 9781846554896
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings Carlton $24.95

Fishpond: Dublinesque or eBook Dublinesque


  1. Hi Lisa,
    If you like books about James Joyce and his family, I’ve got just the unusual book for you. I’ve just completed it and thought it was very good. It is called ‘Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes’ by Mary Talbot and it is a graphic novel, a quick read. It is much about Joyce’s daughter Lucia and her dancing career and after.
    I’m also much interested in Dublinesque as I’ve read Vila-Matas before and much enjoyed his work.


    • I’ll see if I can find it at the library – I had trouble reading the small print in the only other graphic novel I’ve tried, an Iranian one, more’s the pity. Which Vila-Matas did you read? I’d like to read another one of his before long….


      • The Vila-Matas novel I read was ‘Never Any End to Paris’, which was more of a reminiscence than a novel, but a wonderful reminiscence filled with memories of famous literary figures. It sounds like Dublinesque is similar. Vila-Matas is my new favorite for the Nobel Prize.


  2. First, my full sympathy (as someone with a chronic back problem) for your discomfort — I know only too well how a combination of pain and painrelievers can produce brainpain or perhaps brainstrain of the first order.

    Second, many thanks for this review. It is a perfect illustration, for me, of a review that convincingly shows me why some people find this to be an excellent book — and why for me as a reader it would push so many “pain” buttons that I would fight the whole experience. More power to those who like it, I must say.


    • Hi Kevin, yes I can see that for some people it would be ‘too clever by half’, I felt that way about Jennifer Egan’s book though many people loved it. There’s a fine line, IMO, between doing clever things to be funny, and overdoing it with cleverness for the sake of it. I don’t feel that he overdid it, but maybe that’s because I haven’t read Philip Larkin and some of the other authors and I missed the jokes!
      I’m feeling a bit better today and you as a chronic sufferer have my sympathy too. I hope to be back on deck before long, typing this one-handed lying on my side in bed with an angled view of the screen is a challenge…


  3. It sounds very “clever” but not necessarily in a good way (I think I’d miss most of those allusions!). I think I agree with Kevin. I don’t mind obscurity but I have to have some chance of getting to the point. Your review is excellent as always and at least let’s me know what I’ve been missing.

    Terribly sorry about the back – I hope the pain killers continue to work without too many side-effects


    • Oh dear, I hope I haven’t put people off this terrific book! Can I put in a plea for you to try the first chapter at some time? I bet you’d like it!


  4. I have this out from the library to read next week, your review has really whet my appetite. :)


    • *chuckle* Not really that great Women’s Fiction longlist then? I am still cross about that, what a wasted opportunity to introduce the world to wonderful new women writers…


      • I really don’t want to be so negative about the WPF as they really need the support this year while they hunt a sponsor and it could be I am just out of touch/out of sympathy with the WPF judges… but honestly I’ve tried ten, loved two, ditched five and not reviewed the other three on the blog because they felt a bit lightweight. I’m tempted to give a couple of the others a go but mostly though I am going to be wallowing in the much-more-to-my-taste IFFP list. :)


        • You’ve hit the nail on the head, Alex… it’s the crucial difference between sponsorship and endowment. To appeal to sponsors, any prize (in any field) has to be of interest to sufficient numbers of people to make the sponsor believe that he’ll get a bang for his advertising buck. Literary prizes that reward non-commercial fiction are up against that every time, because the press will dismiss the prize as elitist, obscure etc, all the criticism that does the rounds every time the Nobel Prize is announced, and that of course upsets the sponsors. You can always see the tension in prizes that depend on sponsorship in the make-up of the judging panel, there’s always someone from the commercial arm of the industry to argue for ‘accessibility’ to counter-balance any academics who might be trying to sway the nominations towards excellence, innovation etc. What we LitLovers really need is a philanthropist to set up a trust fund that is independent of all these pressures (like the Nobel, or Australia’s Miles Franklin) so that those who write complex, enduring works of literary fiction can be supported with prizes that enable them to write…
          In the meantime, like you, I’m just not taking much notice of prizes that don’t support the kind of fiction I like to read…


  5. I loved this one ,it is a ode to his hero and the city he came from Joyce and Dublin .Very much a book everyone will either love or hate I feel .I felt this ticks and way the book was written suit me but I see why other don’t like it ,all the best stu


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