Decorated with numerous awards in his native Spain—including the same Premio Rómulo Gallegos that catapulted his friend Roberto Bolaño to international renown—Enrique Vila-Matas has pioneered one of contemporary literature’s most interesting responses to the great Modernist writers. Taking the Modernists as towering giants that will never be equaled, Vila-Matas works to inscribe himself—at times literally—in the margins of their works. His tools are irony, parody, paradox, and futility, and his goal is to mix fact, fiction, and autobiography in order to depict not reality but truth. I asked him about his newly translated novel Never Any End to Paris—his third in English—based on the time he spent in Paris as a young writer attempting (and gloriously failing) to triumph as Hemingway did.
Never Any End to Paris uses your youth in Paris to explore ideas of creativity, influence, and identity. The narrator is a writer whose facts and dates are similar to yours, though—I think—he both is and isn’t you. Do you think art requires certain compromises with reality?
Which reality? If you mean the conventional “consumerist reality” that rules the book market and has become the preferred milieu for fiction, this doesn’t interest me at all. What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures. There remains to be written a great book, a book that would be the missing chapter in the development of the epic. This chapter would include all of those—from Cervantes through Kafka and Musil—who struggle with a colossal strength against all forms of fakery and pretense. Their struggle has always had an obvious touch of paradox, since those who so struggled were writers that were up to their ears in fiction. They searched for truth through fiction. And out of this stylistic tension have emerged marvelous semblances of the truth, as well as the best pages of modern literature.
This sentiment is very similar to something you say in Paris—“where there is a mirage there is life”—and it reminds me of something I heard you say in an interview: that for the modernists the quest is rectilinear, in contrast to that of Ulysses, whose quest was a circle. In your books, what inspires this search?
In a movie by Wim Wenders, Nicholas Ray says “you can’t go home again.” Sometimes I think about this phrase, and in order to calm down I imagine myself as a Chinese who came home. “I’m just a Chinese who returned home,” wrote Kafka in a letter. Sometimes I wish I were this Chinese, but only sometimes. Because the truth is that what I write frequently brings me to a descent, a fall, a journey within, an excursion to the end of the night, the complete opposite of a return to Ithaca. In short, I long to journey endlessly, always in search of something new. Always alert.