Impressions of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque

(Spoiler Alert: Lots of mopey intellectual sad men i.e. literati in this one)

This book taught me that you could lose whatever minor happiness you’ve acquired at any point in your life. In Dublinesque, a Spanish novel translated by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey, we find the protagonist Riba two years into his retirement from publishing and newly sober but bored to the point of constant philosophizing and conspiring. Fact is in terms of ‘action’ that occurs in this novel there’s not very much. Most, including himself, would say he thinks far too much even for an intellectual. He thinks about his life in the past tense as though it’s already at an end despite the presence of his vibrant wife Celia whose budding Buddhism adds to Riba’s ever piling woes, and a small group of friends that provide amble support to the apathetic only child.

Taken at face value, Riba has done quite well for himself so far in life. He has fulfilled his early dreams of becoming a publisher (however poorly it ended), and had the opportunity to fully imbed himself in the life of the literary elite while also precariously maintaining his relationship with his overly patient wife and parents. Yet Riba shows the reader that new desires always come up to take the place of the ones we’ve fulfilled and, in his case, the call to live in New York and reside in the city that he views as the center of the world drives him every morning. Additionally, he obsesses in several ways over his waning stature among Barcelona’s literary community, resulting in what he constantly refers to as his hikikomori tendencies, which involve days spent in front of the computer Googling himself til he’s raw, and otherwise sleeping.

Not much leaping in this book.

The major thrust of the novel, his prophesized trip to Dublin, occurs only as a result of Riba’s fear of having nothing to share with his parents during his weekly visits to their house. Unable to find anything interesting to say about his most recent trip for a literary conference, having spent most of it concocting his own literary theory of the novel before burning it in effigy for all other lost literary theories, Riba tells his parents he’s going to Dublin for Bloomsday as a first step in making what he and his fellow literary journeymen keep calling the English Leap, which he hopes will invigorate him enough to finally make his move to New York, and start the next part of his life.

This book handles alcoholism so well throughout in that it makes an interesting case as to why people depend on alcohol to be what they consider their best or most outgoing selves. Now sober, Riba suffers throughout the text from a fear that who he thought himself to be was only a result of imbibing in gins and whiskeys, and although he constantly refers to the fact that he is glad he no longer drinks and therefore no longer engages in drunken dispute with Celia, I could tell that Riba yearned for a drop of alcohol. For him it’d mean restoring his more outgoing nature and also return him to a more youthful state when kidneys could take a walloping; a time when he was more willing, i.e. drunk, to pass the time talking about nothing and merely enjoying the company of others.

Dublinesque also tackles the fascination readers have with literature, and how it sometimes services to diminish the wonderment within our own lives by making us feel as though our day-to-day narratives were something other than ordinary. Riba repeatedly states that he does not desire his life to resemble a literary narrative, but yet he craves for others to recognize his intelligence and eloquence and affirm to him that he is not a diminished man despite being the only person, until his trip to Dublin, who even suggests that he is less than his previous self for his lack of a publishing house or alcohol-fuel diatribes.

I picked this book up after seeing it in a list online of novels not in an official series, but which relate to one another. Dublinesque, due to a large part of the narrative taking place in Dublin on Bloomsday and perhaps also because of its very internal protagonist, was paired with Ulysses, which itself tagged back to The Odyssey. Neither of which I’ve yet read. I feel that’s worth mentioning because perhaps I would’ve loved this book had I read them first.

While I did not enjoy Dublinesque to the extent I hoped to (I found the writing a bit pretentious at times and often felt confused due to frequent refrains that appear more often towards the novel’s end) it did provide me some peace in that it says that no matter how good things go, there’ll always be something that I want and, perhaps more importantly, something to lose.

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