Book Review of Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas
Enriques Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque is the story of Samuel Riba, retired publisher, recovered alcoholic, and more importantly someone for whom ‘reading is a way of being in the world, an instrument for interpreting day to day life.’
On the brink of his sixtieth birthday Riba plots a trip to Dublin, prompted by ‘a strange, premonitory dream’ he had while almost fatally ill two years earlier. There he hopes to perform ‘a funeral for the age of print, for the golden age of Gutenberg,’ loosely based on a literary model: Paddy Dignam’s funeral in chapter six of Joyce’s Ulysses.
The funeral acts as the focal point for an elision of life and literature – a writerly ritual where the mundane is remade as metaphor. Thus, although Riba is described as a ‘publisher,’ in Dublinesque this is not a job title. Instead it denotes an inner disposition, ‘an exaggerated fanaticism for literature’ which would put Riba at odds with the book trade today.
In fact, Dublinesque has almost nothing to do with publishing, and Riba’s grief for the passing of print’s ‘golden age’ isn’t cultural commentary; it’s largely a grief for his own lived losses, and for ‘everything that, with time, he’d come to see was buried.’
Riba’s journey to Dublin is therefore a journey inward, ‘to the very centre of his dream.’ Indeed, it isn’t just that Riba’s ‘real’ journey is determined by the dream that precedes it. Rather, we sense that he’s still asleep, perhaps even already dead; either way, the dream never ended. He seems forever immersed in reverie, whether relapsing into drunkenness, reminiscing, or dissociatively surfing the internet. Hence his dream is less an event that sets his story in motion than a horizon within which it occurs.
To reach its centre would be to achieve what Jung called ‘individuation,’ knowing himself anew, like when one first looks in a mirror. What’s more, it would also mean writing a story, all of whose words would indirectly refer to himself – the sort of story written in dreams and forgotten on waking. In this respect Riba is, as Freud said of writers, ‘a dreamer in broad daylight.’
For Riba, then, to live is to dream is to write is to read. For better or worse, he can’t detach these terms from each other. This is why his inner life, and his narrative voice, consist of ‘an accumulation of literary quotations,’ an intertextual tissue where countless writers – Larkin, Gracq, Auster, almost anyone – coexist in a ‘tangled mess,’ their words and his rendered inextricable.
Yet while Dublinesque is densely referential, it is emphatically not a ‘postmodern’ novel. Its practices of collage and pastiche don’t purport to connect to any collective condition. Instead, and more enigmatically, literature is a private language through which Riba relates to himself. His references rely on an associative freight accrued for him alone.
For him, literature is wholly embedded in lived experience; his allusions are only intelligible in terms of his habitus. So, although the book implies infinite literary linkages, this is a bounded infinity, fully enclosed – less like an intertext than an inexplicable dream.
Describing a dream is like describing another person; in each case, the object withdraws from observation. The interiors of people and dreams are fractal: like Mandelbrot’s coastlines, they can’t be conclusively mapped.
With Dublinesque, the same can be said of the novel. Near the beginning of the book, Riba’s father refers to ‘the unfathomable dimension,’ a remark which recurs whenever Riba encounters something ‘inextinguishable, unreachable.’
He detects this dimension in great literature, but also in ‘the grey rhythm of the prosaic,’ the inscrutable details of daily life. In Walter Benjamin’s words, we could say Dublinesque is entangled in ‘the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday.’
Because of this, the book itself becomes unaccountable, exceeding the reach of our reading. Whenever it briefly clears into coherence, an alien phrase or fragment will arise as if from nowhere, returning us to total estrangement. To take one example, ‘even the rain beneath which all the dead once fell in love will have faded away.’
The problem presented by Dublinesque is one of orientation. How are we to find our feet within an unfathomable work? Of course, this is also the problem that Ulysses poses – it is Joyce’s challenge to literature.
With Joyce, maybe more than with any author before him, the literary work requires a literary theory. Not only this, but Ulyssessets out to prove that a work can theorise itself through its practice. It does so by means of a complex web of ‘correspondences,’ mapping its textual territory with a system of symbols. Indeed, Ulysses aims to exhaust itself in this internal project of explication.
Signs of a similar project can be seen in Dublinesque, where Riba seems surrounded by ‘secret forces’ and ‘metaphorical associations,’ as if ‘a code lay concealed behind every scene in his life.’ But if the book hints at Joycean encryption, it only does so to delight in misleading us.
Dublinesque does not and cannot contain a map of itself. In this sense it’s telling that Riba, too, tries to construct a ‘theory of the novel.’ Before long he concludes that ‘the best thing to do is to travel and to lose theories, lose them all.’ Dublinesque is a work that has built but abandoned its theory. Yet it has let its ruined landmarks stand, the better to lose itself by.
Ultimately, even Ulysses fails to fully explain itself, which is why Joyce resorted to the supplementary ‘schema’ he sent to Stuart Gilbert in 1921. Towards its end, Dublinesque dovetails with this device, dividing its episodes into subheaded sections with titles like ‘time,’ ‘style’, ‘action’ and ‘themes.’ But the effect is not one of rationalisation.
Joyce’s schematic title for chapter six of Ulysses was ‘Hades’ – Dignam’s funeral is designed to echo Odysseus’ descent to the realm of the dead. Perhaps the difference between these books is best grasped through an allegory of death and rebirth.
Ulysses buries its thematic workings, whereas Dublinesque raises them to the surface. The book’s most unfathomable mystery lies in the way it insistently spells itself out. Whenever Riba sees a pattern, a parallelism, some figurative flourish, he can’t help but refer to it. For him, after all, literature is self-relation. As a result – and this is the real achievement of Dublinesque – literature is returned to experience.
The novel is not a puzzle to be solved. It has always already solved itself, bringing what was buried back to life. This is a book in which things are no longer concealed; where writing and reading revivify whatever we thought was dead inside us. ‘You haven’t come to Dublin to turn yourself into a metaphor, have you?’ Riba is asked at one point. ‘That and so I can feel alive,’ he replies.
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Publication Date: 14/06/2012
Number of pages: 320
James Gray has a life-long interest in politics, travel, the environment, and global affairs. He works in IT but his heart truly beats for the written word.