Contrary to what so many believe, no one writes to entertain, although literature might be one of the most entertaining things around, no one writes to ‘tell stories,’ although literature is full of brilliant tales. No, one writes to take the reader captive, to possess, seduce, subjugate, to enter into the spirit of another and stay there, to touch, to win the reader’s heart.
—Enrique Vila Matas, The Illogic of Kassel
Enrique Vila-Matas's The Illogic of Kassel begins with a McGuffin—or several McGuffins: Mr. and Mrs. McGuffin, wealthy Irish patrons who offer to reveal to the narrator the secret of the universe. This, of course, is a trick. The proposal is actually an invitation to take part in avant-garde art exhibition, Documenta 13. Indeed, the invitation is the fulfillment of a wish; the narrator has held the secret hope for many years that he would one day be invited to Documenta, proof that the avant-garde considered him one of their own: “It was if they’d asked me to play soccer for my favorite professional team.”
The novel tells the story of an unnamed Catalan writer’s attendance at the international art exhibition that subsumes the German city of Kassel, and where the writer—Kassel’s narrator—has agreed to be writer-in-residence for a week in Dchingis Khan, a Chinese restaurant on the city’s outskirts.
Crucial to the narrative is a series of literary references which range from Robinson Crusoe to Joseph Roth to Sergio Pitol. Especially pertinent is Kafka and his comment in a letter to Felice Bauer: “Marienbad is unbelievably beautiful. I imagine if I were Chinese and were about to go home (indeed I am Chinese and I am going home), I would make sure of returning soon, and at any price.” The Catalan writer who is to write in the Chinese restaurant sees a parallel here. This idea of being, deep down, Chinese and of returning home runs as a metaphor throughout the novel as the narrator seeks the comfort that comes with this “return.”
But the invitation begins to take on the shape of a sick joke, if not a nightmare; he considers pulling out in the months before the exhibition, repelled by the idea of being put on show. The city of Kassel, when viewed through the frame of having to become one of the exhibited, becomes a kind of Pandemonium for the narrator, the idea of sitting in Dchingis Khan akin to being taken to the scaffold.
The invitation, then, becomes less the confirmation of the narrator’s place in the avant-garde than it is his opportunity to see for himself what power, if any, contemporary art has left: “Didn’t I come to Kassel precisely to seek the aesthetic instant?” The assistants to Documenta’s curators chaperone the narrator around the exhibition like museum guides, committed to the task and almost always full of joy. This is in contrast to the narrator’s reluctance and pessimism, and despite the repeated failures of communication between the guides and the guided. Language—human communication—is unsatisfactory: the narrator is repeatedly at a loss for words, pressured to respond when he is without an answer, misunderstood when he is enthusiastic, or simply fearful of being misunderstood and so not speaking at all. Speech is an exchange of McGuffins.
In contrast to this is the art of Kassel. As the narrator becomes acquainted with the art’s lexicon, as it touches him—literally, rubbing against him in the dark—and he opens himself up to its logic, he begins to commune with it. When he is freed from his role as exhibited and allowed to become a viewer, the city becomes a wonderland:
Since I’d arrived in the city, I felt that an invisible force had taken hold of me, making me find everything exciting, as if Kassel had presented me with an unexpected shift of gears, an unforeseen impetus that would help me have optimism in the future toward art and life, though not toward the world, which I’d already given up for lost.
The guides and their crippled language are discarded, and what develops is an authentic communication which it is impossible for mere speech to match. It is art, not other people, that offers the more satisfying connection.
The idea of one thing incorporating another thing that acts both as a counterpoint and an equal part, thus producing a whole, returns throughout the novel. Documenta 13’s theme—collapse and recovery—itself is a binary. Kassel, a city which played such a pivotal role in the Second World War, is changed during Documenta, rejuvenated, its recent turn as city-wide avant-garde art festival now inseparable from its history. These dualities crosshatch the narrative, keeping it balanced in a “tense equilibrium.” The forces powering the narrative of The Illogic of Kassel, then, rely on the binaries of collapse and recovery, confusion and understanding, the unexpected and the expected, but also of chaos and order. As if in keeping with this theme, even New Directions, the publishers of Kassel, are releasing another Vila-Matas title on the same publication day: A Portable History of Literature—the yin to Kassel's yang.
Kassel is a work of chaos. On the surface, this is narrative by association, the aestheticization of the experience of confronting contemporary art, which inevitably includes the turning over of one’s ideas of what is and what isn’t art. Vila-Matas’s text has a diaristic, free-wheeling quality to match: the narrator sleep-walks through Documenta's alien landscape, observing, thinking, remembering, finding humor, trying to communicate, ultimately failing. One of the many rivets holding this chaos in place are the connections the reader makes within the story and which the narrator, too, makes moments later, this feeling of the text having been created especially for the reader. The coincidental, when recognized by both reader and narrator, swerves into the uncanny, taking on the appearance of the serendipitous. These moments are encrusted in the text, placed in the way of the reader, to be held up to the light for examination, or else ignored. In contrast to this, Vila-Matas at times lays out the themes of the narrative and even reveals the mechanics of the text: “My opening sentence is just a McGuffin, having little to do with what I intend to relate.” To this end, the story contains no secrets.
It’s unsurprising, then, that at least one analogue of what Vila-Matas does in The Illogic of Kassel can be found in the text itself, in the narrator’s discussion of French artist Pierre Huyghe and his Documenta work Untilled. Of Huyghe, the narrator says: “He liked reality to turn itself into fiction and vice versa, for it to be hard to tell the difference between the two.” Untilled is a compost heap installed on a former garden. Two dogs wander around it as if guarding it in its slow process of degradation. The narrator recognizes in it the high maintenance that the appearance of chaos requires: “One of the odd things that occurred to me about that weird place was that it seemed to have been created especially for me.”
Kassel jitters with this kind of metatextual play: with McGuffins, with coincidence, with confession and with literary references. “Every story leads to another story, which leads to another story, and so on into infinity.” For Vila-Matas, literature is a chamber of echoes. But rather than thinking of this as a criticism, this is to be embraced—one of literature’s eternal beauties.