Reasonable Words: Enrique Vila-Matas

Still humming from reading Dublinesque, a book that gets inside your mind via the mind of the protagonist, the recently retired, somewhat fraught ex-drinker, Riba, who was a Barcelona publisher of ambitious literary fiction.

He never found the genius writer he was looking for, and now, in his 60s, has come up with the dubious idea of getting a group of friends together to go to Dublin to conduct a requiem for the Gutenberg Age, with, among many other Joycean subtexts, the ongoing challenge of staying on the wagon despite nightly visits to Irish bars, including one fateful one he’s seen in a dream.

It’s a gorgeously written book, and accordingly one that I’m savoring by a reading only a few pages, sometimes just a few paragraphs, at a time. A sample taste, from p. 148. The group of mourners/celebrants has finally made it to Ireland; they have an old car and are tooling around:

Time: Around two in the afternoon.
Day: Sunday June 15.
Place: The port of Howth, at the north end of Dublin Bay. Less than a mile from here is Ireland’s Eye, a rocky seabird sanctuary built on the ruins of a monastery.
Characters: The four travelers in the Chrysler.
Action: They park at the edge of the town, the foot of the cliffs where Nietzky, who knows the place, has suggested they walk for a while. They stride along a path through the rocks, and once a certain amount of vertigo has been overcome–blue and gray lights in the fishing port, and high up, in the sky, scudding clouds over the Irish Sea–Riba can finally see Dublin. He still hasn’t seen the city, despite already having been on the island for some hours.

Even though it’s so far off, he finally sees something of Dublin, sees it from high on these cliffs that rise up from the sea. Flocks of birds float on the water. The fascinating sadness of the place seems accentuated by the sight of these fleets of somnolent birds, in the middle of the day, and it’s as if the void becomes intertwined with the deep sadness, which from time to time finds its voice in the shrieking of a gull. A magnificent landscape, boosted by his enthusiastic state of mind that comes from feeling he’s in a foreign land.

Timidly moved, Riba recalls a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Irish Cliffs of Moher”:

They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,
Above the real,

Rising out of present time and place, above
The wet, green grass.

This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations
Of poetry

And the sea. This is my father or, maybe,
It is as he was,

A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth
And sea and air.

There’s Dublin, slightly hazy in the middle of the bay. A girl goes by with a portable radio playing “This Boy,” by The Beatles. And the song gives him a sudden feeling of nostalgia for the time when he too was close to the “race of fathers.” He’s not young anymore and doesn’t know if he can bear such beauty. He looks at the sea again. He takes a few steps toward the rocks and immediately feels that he ought to stand still, because if he keeps on walking he’ll probably end up staggering along, blinded by tears. It’s a secret emotion, hard to communicate. Because how can he tell the truth and let his friends know he’s fallen in love with the Irish Sea?

This is my country now, he thinks.

Before, when he drank, Riba didn’t distinguish between strong and weak emotions, or between friends and enemies. But his recent lucidity has slowly given him back his capacity for boredom, and also for excitement. And the Irish Sea–over which he now imagines a great mass of gray clouds with silver edges floating–seems to him the most superb incarnation of beauty, the highest expression of that which disappeared from his life for so long and which now–it’s never too late–he has found all at once, as if he were in the middle of a great storm, feeling like a man who senses his life is going downhill, yet is faced with the unmistakable beauty of a gray sea edged with silver, and which he’ll never forget as long as his memory serves him.

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