In ‘Permanent Home’, the first story in Vampire in Love, the narrator listens to a death-bed confession from his father – “you should know your mother died because I arranged it.” As the story progresses, the son begins to suspect that his father is not being entirely truthful, in the end responding with the remark, “You are clearly confusing me with someone else. I am not your son.”
“My father, who had once believed in many, many things only to end up distrusting all of them, was leaving me with a unique, definitive faith: That of believing in a fiction that one knows to be a fiction, aware that this is all that exists, and that the exquisite truth consists in knowing that it is a fiction and, nevertheless, one should believe in it.”
It will not surprise regular readers of Vila-Matas that the line between fact and fiction remains blurred throughout many of the tales which follow in this collection of his short fiction, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. In ‘I Never Go to the Movies’ Pampanini uses the same line, “You’re obviously confusing me with someone else,” when he is mistaken for a famous, but deceased, director. Ironically, Pampanini has never been inside a cinema:
“Because in the movies nothing is ever true.”
The set-up is amusing, but it takes a writer of Vila-Matas imagination to finish such a story with a final flourish that depends not on Pampanini’s identity but on his dismissal of film as irrelevant to reality with a series of events happening in front of his eyes that seem straight from the cinema screen. The possibility if mistaken identity reoccurs in ‘Torre del Mirador’ where the narrator is regaled by a unknown man with his life story over the phone. Having left his wife because she made him miserable with her constant complaints regarding his ugliness he has undergone plastic surgery:
“For some days now I’ve had a completely different face. Even if I did go back, I doubt that my wife would recognise me.”
The narrator decides to investigate the truth of the story, tracking down the wife and visiting her under the pretence of buying her villa. While he is there a man appears claiming to be the husband but, of course, the wife has no way of recognising him. As the narrator leaves he sees another potential husband approaching.
The interaction between fact and fiction is mirrored by that between the artists and his inspiration. In ‘The Hour of the Tired and Weary’ the narrator spends his days following people and observing their actions, claiming to be “a pursuer of other people’s lives, a kind of lazy detective, a storyteller.” As the story progresses, questions are raised over how far he observes reality and how far he influences it. In ‘They Say I Should Say who I Am’ the narrator challenges an artist who has spent his life painting portraits of Babakuans having never set foot in Babakua:
“…if you had ever bothered to visit that diabolical place, you would know how very unfaithful all your paintings are. It makes me laugh to think of those critics who call you the last realist.”
The narrator’s point seems undeniable, until, that is, he begins to create his own portrait of Babakuans as a strange and eccentric race.
Vila-Matas’ literary light-handedness should not be mistaken, however, for a lack of seriousness. Suicide is a perhaps unexpected preoccupation throughout many of the stories. In ‘Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life’ the protagonist, burdened with the knowledge her son is fatally ill, encounters numerous opportunities (as she calls them) to die:
“She thought how easy it wold be to die and that she should not let this splendid opportunity pass her by.”
In ‘Death by Saudade’ the narrator discovers from a teacher that his friend, Horatio’s, family has a history of suicide:
“I could never write a convincing story based on the history of that family, because there are too many gunshots and too many leaps into the void, too much poison, too many people dying by their own hand.”
The title story, too, is touched by suicide; in others, the darkness seems to come from the time they were written (the early stories are dated). ‘Greetings for Dante’ (though given its own context by the story, the title is a clear reference to Hell) in particular seems an imagined response to Franco’s dictatorship.
On a more light-hearted note, there are some particular delights for Vila-Matas fans. ‘Sea Swell’ reads like an out-take from Never Any End to Paris as Vila-Matas visits Marguerite Duras hoping to rent a flat from her but having unfortunately taken amphetamines beforehand. In ‘Invented Memories’ we see him at his playful best in a tribute to Antonio Tabucchi.
Vampire in Love is not only a must for any admirer of Vila-Matas, but a fantastic introduction to his work if you have never read him before. And if you’ve never read him before, what are you waiting for?