Posts Tagged ‘mac & his problem’

Mac & His Problem

March 10, 2020

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.