Skip to main content
book review

The Illogic of Kassel

By Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom, New Directions, 256 pages, $16.95

A Brief History of Portable Literature

By Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Anne McLean and Thomas Bunstead, New Directions, 86 pages, $16.95

In 2012, at the 13th edition of the Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany, the Dutch artist Ineke Vos constructed a museum. Vos transformed a Friedrichsplatz retail space into a series of dioramas, populated with lifelike mannequins, which traced "A Living History of the Documenta." Except that every hour the figures shifted into new poses, changing the narrative; the sculptures were in fact actors – humans imitating representations imitating humans – and the museum cheekily eradicated its own authority by fictionalizing what purported to be factual material.

That same year, Documenta invited Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas and a host of other internationally recognized authors to join the usual cohort of visual, conceptual and performance artists at the festival. The writers were installed at alternating intervals in a Chinese restaurant, where patrons could watch them work. This zoolike experience would provide Vila-Matas with the source material for The Illogic of Kassel, which inverts Vos's treatment of form and content: the book, though based in fact, adopts novelistic techniques to pose as fiction, describing actual events with ironic distance to question and trouble their "realism."

New Directions presents Kassel concurrently with Vila-Matas's A Brief History of Portable Literature. Published in Spanish in 1985, A Brief History details the activities of a secret society called the Shandies, whose members, according to Vila-Matas, included Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O'Keeffe and Aleister Crowley. This time, the stories are made up but the names are real, and the book's taxonomical framework lends the fiction authenticity – even when, say, the Shandies are spending a week cloistered in a disused submarine, formerly repurposed, coincidentally enough, as a Chinese restaurant.

The primary subject of Vila-Matas's novels has long been literature itself, and both books obsess over themes of authorship, storytelling, representation and the interplay between fiction and "real life." He often narrates his novels via a proxy of himself; Kassel, of the titles available in English, can be most explicitly linked to its author, though various elements of his biography align with the storylines of previous work. (Like the narrator of Never Any End to Paris, for example, Vila-Matas spent his artistically formative years in France.)

Vila-Matas's writing is also notable for its mandate to "seek the new." "Some of us reject the repetition of what has been done before," rails the narrator of Kassel. "We loathe […] the realist who thinks the task of the writer is to reproduce, copy, imitate reality, as if, in its chaotic evolution, its monstrous complexity, reality could be trapped and narrated." Instead of adhering to events as they occurred, the world of a Vila-Matas novel, whether reimagining history or populating his pages with its ghosts, is informed and interpreted by fiction. As the narrator of Kassel, for example, strolls around the German town in search of "doors opening to a new world," he becomes convinced that "he [was] inside someone else's novel, in this case, a book by Robert Walser."

Walser also turns up in A Brief History, as do Walter Benjamin and Kafka. But, again, the books offer counterpoints: While these figures haunt Kassel's contemporary scenes, in A Brief History, their own lives are recast through the Shandian lens. Jacques Rigaut, a French dadaist so obsessed with suicide that it became his life's work, appears as a foundational figure among the Shandies – biography intact. Yet upon his suicide, which the society considers a perfect work of art, Vila-Matas attributes a few words of warning to Blaise Cendrars: "There would be nothing worse than killing yourself and making a fool of yourself and, to top it all off, not even knowing you'd done that."

Vila-Matas is a remarkable ironist, a skill he deploys throughout Kassel and A Brief History as sly humour, but also as a destabilization technique to create nebulous, discomfiting spaces in the text. Portable literature, for instance, is never really defined, offered in one instance as a miniature art installation literally lugged around in a suitcase, and elsewhere as an abstract category of lifestyle and aesthetic. In Kassel the art world turns alternately pretentious and bewildering. The narrator rides a lot of buses aimlessly around town, attends performances and installations he doesn't understand and when one of the festival organizers explains, in baffling language, an exhibition by the South African artist William Kentridge, he wonders, "What did she mean? Had she memorized and recited this speech for me? Did she herself understand what she was saying?"

Like the work of Vos, both The Illogic of Kassel and A Brief History of Portable Literature are, essentially, masquerades. They each parody a recognizable form with incongruous content and explore the uncanny valley between the invented and the "real." It's a shame that among the various art-happenings detailed in Kassel that Vila-Matas never writes about that fake project; Vos would have made a great Shandy, too. Though I suppose I'm being unfair: While the wax museum described above bears a resemblance to work by Guillaume Bijl and Iris Haeussler, no such installation ever happened at Documenta, or anywhere else, because the artist doesn't exist. I made her up.

Interact with The Globe