Author Q&A: Enrique Vila-Matas

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An effeminate, hunchbacked barber on the verge of death falls in love with a choirboy. A fledgling writer on barbiturates visits Marguerite Duras’s Paris apartment and watches his dinner companion slip into the abyss. Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas’s short stories, spanning 30 years of his career, have been translated into English for the first time by Margaret Jull and presented in a new collection, Vampire in Love (& Other Stories, £12.99 hardback, £7 ebook). They are ironic, offbeat and very concerned with the relationship between writing and art.

Do short stories allow you to do something different from novels? There’s certainly a sustained playfulness throughout this collection.
Play is central to all my writing. A great friend of mine, also a writer – Sergio Pitol – said that every time I got too close to realism, he had the feeling I was playing with dynamite.

In A Permanent Home, your protagonist talks of “believing in a fiction that one knows to be fiction, aware that this is all that exists”. Do you mistrust notions of reality or just like to subvert them?
When you write fiction, you have not only to believe in it yourself, you also have to make it credible to the reader. The art of fiction is based on that paradox. Or is that simply how we exist in the world, always balanced on that same paradox? Simultaneously dead and alive? As for reality, I would say that there are as many realities as there are points of view.

Someone in love is both “vampire and martyr”, you write in the title story. Is love always about extremes?
In love there are always two opposing poles, happiness and unhappiness. However, I think that when I said that someone who’s in love is both vampire and martyr, I was simply making an allusion to the sometimes very Christian nature of the city in which the story is set – Seville.

Did you consciously set out to be literary as a writer – in the sense of invoking and discussing other authors – or did it develop naturally?
I think I feel a certain sympathy for other writers, especially the ones who are suicidal, alcoholic, mad or doomed, because they’re the writers I like best. I’ve always tried to write like them, to create an equally tragic vision of the human condition and of how close we all are to the edge of the abyss, but without having to suffer intellectually as they did and without ending up as another Pale King.

What does the urban landscape offer you as a writer?
Anyone who knows me knows that I find the beauty of the countryside positively soporific. In the city, on the other hand, I feel that I come face to face with poetry. I still remember the misty winter morning in New York when I realised there was no reason to dismiss the green jewel shining among the branches just because it was a traffic light.

What does a writer hope for from their translator?
I want a translator to respect the voice in my books, which is always a rather humble, helpless, modest voice. I realise that my voice, so full of quotations and cultural references, can – if translated too “academically” – appear pedantic. That’s the great danger.


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