Mac & His Problem

Enrique Vila-Matas’ Mac & His Problem (translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes) is another playful rumination on writing from the incomparable Spanish author. The narrator, Mac, is a failed building contractor who is now turning his hand to writing. From the beginning we are told to distrust what we are told:

“I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be ‘posthumous’ and ‘unfinished’ when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete.”

(Even this, it is later suggested, is not an original idea – in a novel of repetitions and borrowings – as Mac points out that Georges Perec’s posthumous, unfinished “53 Days” was discovered suspiciously complete). Mac begins, however, with a diary, a diary which, he tells us (as we read it) “no one else is going to read.” (We also discover later that “afterward I painstakingly edit what I’ve written”).

Mac soon fixates on a novel written many years before by a neighbour, Sanchez, with whom he is only distantly acquainted. Walter & His Problem tells the story of a ventriloquist – that is, someone who lends his voice for a living – in a novel full of borrowed voices:

“Walter’s main problem, a very grave one for a person in his profession, namely, that he had only one voice, the voice that writers so yearn to find, but which for him, for obvious reasons, was highly problematic.”

Conversely, the novel is written in the form of a series of stories, each adopting the style of another writer:

“Behind the different voices corresponding to each of the stories lay, camouflaged, ‘imitations, sometimes satirical and at other times not, of the masters of the short story.’”

This allows Vila-Matas (Mac) to retell the stories of the novel adding a further layer of repetition, before Mac decides to rewrite them:

“I could set about repeating the book Sanchez claims to have more or less forgotten.”

“We come into the world,” he tells us, “in order to repeat what those who came before us also repeated.” For Mac there is no anxiety of influence only an unequivocal acceptance.

Literary influence, however, is not Vila-Matas’ only target; he is also interested in the relationship between “fiction and reality, an old married couple.” As Mac writes, his real life increasingly intermingles with what he puts on the page. In this, Vila-Matas is addressing (tongue in cheek) a type of writing made fashionable by Karl Knausgaard, whom we are told Sanchez admires (“Sanchez’s sole ambition was to emulate a certain Norwegian writer…”). As Mac points out, once you begin to write your life, the process of writing affects the life:

“I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing.”

His reading of Walter & His Problem also interacts with his own life, in particular one chapter entitled ‘Carmen’ which he identifies with his wife of that name. Not only does it transpire that Sanchez once knew Carmen, Mac begins to suspect that they are involved once again:

“I thought I saw Sanchez and Carmen walking along together on the opposite sidewalk. They weren’t holding hands, but it looked as if they were.”

Mac begins to feel that “my reading of the book is obliging me to actually live out certain scenes.” By the end of the novel he is both identifying with Walter while at the same time disassociating himself from his own work by attributing the re-writing of Sanchez’s novel to his (fake) nephew.

I found Mac & His Problem to be an affectionate but often uncomfortably accurate ridiculing of contemporary literature. It is not only very funny at times, but has the charm of spot-on satire without cruelty. The character of Mac – both a writer and not a writer – allows Vila-Matas to comment as if from the side-lines while retaining his erudition (it’s a book that will point you towards other books). It’s a pleasure to see it on the International Booker long list, which so far suggests an admiration for books which are playfully serious.


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14 Responses to “Mac & His Problem”

  1. International Booker Prize 2020 Long List | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes from Spanish (Harvill Secker) […]

  2. Bellezza Says:

    I wonder if I would “get” the humor. To me, it sounds almost like this book dances on the edge of sorrow…hopelessness? I’m already intrigued about the sentence you wrote of coming into the world only to repeat our mistakes. I hope that isn’t true, and yet so much of me suspects that it is. I am looking forward to reading this and better understanding the book, for which you have laid a good foundation for us.

    • 1streading Says:

      The humour is self-deprecating as far as writing goes so, as you read a lot, I’m sure some of it will be recognizable!
      You’re right, though, the idea of repetition applies to far more than art.
      On a more general point, I’m really enjoying the long list so far this year.

      • Bellezza Says:

        I am so enjoying it, too! It is far better than I have read in years past, although I’ve only read four so far. There is a push in my heart to read the whole list before the short list is revealed April 2, and yet, I do not want to push myself and miss such beautiful literature.

        Your response on my blog helped me articulate a few thoughts about the Greengage Tree, so I so appreciate your visit. As always.

      • 1streading Says:

        Thanks – likewise. I don’t think I’ll finish the long list before the 2nd – not unless we enter lock-down!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Oh, I’m so glad to see your reflections on this book as you’ve made it sound much more interesting than some of other reviews have suggested! The fact that the satire is pertinent but without resorting to cruelty makes it all the more appealing. That’s a very tricky balance to pull off effectively, especially when the target of that humour is the literary world itself. An interesting companion piece to EVM’s Bartleby, perhaps?

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds very interesting, Grant. Like Jacqui I was unsure quite what to make of it after other reviews. I’ve only read one other of his books (Bartleby and Co) which I loved very much, and I’ve always intended to explore his work further. Plus you remind me that I have a copy of Perec’s 53 and it’s one of the few of his I haven’t read…. ;D

  5. lauratfrey Says:

    Oh this does sound good. I read a short story by this author, it was part of last year’s Short Story Advent Calendar. It was similarly about different realities and perspectives, and very disorienting, in a good way!

  6. Material Archive Says:

    This book sounds so relevant as regards the growing trend of “autofiction.” Spent quite a bit of time reading up on the supposedly new phenomenon just yesterday….I too was glad to see your comment that Vila-Matas doesn’t stoop into cruelty, which would serve little purpose. I’ve yet to read any of his work though, I suppose saving up for a collective burst through the available books.

    • 1streading Says:

      Writer are mentioned a it in the book, though generally respectfully – even when Vila-Matas is poking fun it’s good-humoured, and often aimed at the act of writing itself.

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