On Enrique Vila-Matas’ ‘Vampire in Love’
Vila-Matas’ short stories are absurd, but distinctly real, and have a charm that cannot be compared to anything else.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Fiction | Short Stories
5.2” x 8”
Perfectbound Trade Paperback
Also available in eBook formats
Review Format: Paperback
New Directions Press
New York, New York, USA
I can remember a lot of men swearing on their lives, and yet no one knows what life really is.
(from “Invented Memories,” p. 157)
Occasionally one will come across a book that is difficult to classify. It is a book that leaves an unmistakable impression yet defies definitions of genre, managing to be a quirky kind of wonderful. The short stories of Enrique Vila-Matas’ collection, Vampire in Love, fit this description perfectly, beginning with an unusual title, taken from one of the stories found later in the collection. It is perhaps best described as a meeting of the European gothic style with contemporary speculative fiction.
Vila-Matas’ stories are eccentric and witty. While the plots may be familiar to the reader — two friends going to dinner with a potential landlady, a woman working as a guard in an art museum experiencing a midlife crisis, to name a few — they are layered with details and personality that make it difficult to parallel them to the work of any other author. One will find a young boy who refuses to talk, his first words after 11 years being words of chastisement toward his mother, a man being fooled by his son’s constant statements of how he sees the nether, and many other unusual scenarios that make it hard to imagine them as part of everyday life.
At the same time, there is something distinctly real about these stories, possibly because of how little they resemble the fantasy world. When, in “Sea Swell,” one of the young men begins talking about his past life in the underwater city of Atlantis, there is no sudden switch in tone or quality to the writing. Vila-Matas makes this feel like a simple fact, a part of a completely sane and plausible scenario, as if one can go out into the street and find that every third stranger shares the same origin story. These short stories play with the concept of sanity and the surreal, though never to their own detriment. The level of absurdity is kept consistent, which is why the moments of profound clarity that escape from the mouths of some characters or enter the minds of others do not have the kind of illuminating, epiphany quality to them. They, too, feel more real and easy to process. Take, for instance, a conversation between two men in the short story “In Search of the Electrifying Act”:
“Didn’t you used to be Brandy Mastaza.”
That “used to be” rather shook me.
“And you,” I replied, “never used to be anyone, which is much worse.”
The absurdity of the situation — a now forgotten and quite fat actor goes looking for a very skinny partner who will balance him out in an act — is neither emphasized nor downplayed when Vila-Matas inserts such moments of clarity, not just in this particular story but in any one might choose as an example. The result is a collection of stories that illustrates the general trend of daily life, albeit with slightly more exaggeration at times.
If one isn’t fully convinced by the plot of the stories, then the writing style will do the convincing instead. The well-crafted and rounded sentences frequently veer off into asides or details that both add to the story as well as provide a comical addition to it that is an extraneous treat. Vampire in Love is sure to be memorable, and even if the plot of each story doesn’t come to mind right away, then the titles are sure to jog the memory easily. It’s a collection whose charm cannot be compared to anything else, and its readiness to bestow words of measured wisdom is truly impressive, reminding readers that:
[t]hey say the imagination is a place where it’s always raining.
(“An Idle Soul,” p. 155).