Enrique Vila-Matas’s “Montano’s Malady”

Reviewed by Michael Kern Johnson

Image of Enrique Vila-Matas’s “Montano’s Malady”

In his second novel to be published in English in the US, Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas follows, sometimes quite literally, in the footsteps of authors as various as Cervantes, Montaigne, and Musil in a bi-continental search for the purpose of literature in a shifting world that seems evermore to question the need for literature. As in Borges, an obvious inspiration, everything is open to imaginative re-use and re-interpretation; pre-conceived genre divisions are meaningless; and nothing can be taken as fact.

Montano's Malady begins in Nantes on the west coast of France, where José, the narrator, has left his fairly routine writer's existence in Barcelona to visit his son Montano. Both José and his son suffer from a form of "literature-sickness;" in the case of Montano, the malady is writer's block. For José it's an inability to think of the world in any terms other than literary. When the visit goes awry and with it José's hopes that this visit may be the cure they both needed, our hero, or a version of him, sets out on a quixotic search for meaning in a world with or without literature. His adventures carry him to the coast of Chile, where he meets the vampiric Felipe Tongoy, an actor from the films of Fellini and the "ugliest man in the world." Tongoy becomes something of a Sancho Panza to the narrator's Quixote, and accompanies the narrator and his wife Rosa to a lonely, almost barren island in the Azores, where they meet a former writer who has abandoned literature in favor of laughter therapy, and then on to Budapest for a distinguished literary conference and the narrator's unorthodox speech-as-nervous-breakdown.

Along the way, Vila-Matas includes a biographical dictionary of writers who have influenced José, a novella within a novel and cornucopia of conflicting character descriptions. The reader is forced at every turn to decide what is real and what is imagined and most importantly whether such distinctions between fact and fiction, life and literature, even matter. It's clear that Vila-Matas revels in the confusion. At a recent event at the Cervantes Institute in New York, Vila-Matas, talking about his earlier novel Bartleby & Co., found it amusing that a quote that the narrator of that book ascribes to Marguerite Duras, but that Vila-Matas had in fact made up, was now being cited in Spain as something Duras had actually written.

Vila-Matas, who has earned a reputation in Europe as one of the most important living writers in Spain, is no less devious in this novel, but he has written a surprisingly moving story of one's man's attempt to make sense of the chaos. By the end, after many detours and much circling back, José finds himself as the only non-German-speaking writer at a bizarre writer's conference. Alone at night in the Swiss Alps, he attempts to commune with the writers who have inspired his battle "against the enemies of the literary" and reconcile his dreams for literature with the competing limitations of his own mundane life as a writer and husband. Montano's Malady is a touching and perhaps hopeful inquiry into what it means to be a reader, or writer, in an increasingly unliterary world.