For Paul & Enrique
In the early eighties, during his first trip to New York, the writer Enrique Vila-Matas waited at a bus stop on Fifth Avenue, near the Metropolitan Museum. He thought he would have a dry martini at the Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel, some thirty blocks south. When he got on the bus, he gave a fleeting glance at the passengers, and discovered among them a girl of astonishing beauty. He looked for a spot from where to watch her discreetly and sat down. He had been right, she was very attractive, but something distracted him from his original intentions. The girl was seated next to a man who, upon close inspection, turned out to be none other than J.D. Salinger, that’s right, the one and only Jerome David Salinger. After a few stops, Salinger and his companion got off the bus, had an argument about a key that apparently had been lost and that was that. This is the version of events as they appear in Bartleby & Co. The truth, however, is somewhat different. What follows is an account of how things really happened.
When Enrique Vila-Matas realized that he was riding on the same bus as J.D. Salinger, that most invisible of writers, he was overcome with emotion and made up his mind to follow him. It was a bold decision, for not only did he not speak a word of English, but he did not have the slightest idea how to get around in a city as confusing as New York. When the author of The Catcher in the Rye got off the bus, the Catalan writer followed him. They cut two lonely figures on the stretch of the sidewalk along Central Park. Anxious, the Catalan flipped up the collar of his raincoat, put on his hat and a pair of sunglasses, and waited for the New York novelist to go on his way. Completely unaware of Vila-Matas’s presence, Salinger headed for a wide path and started to cross the park. Vila-Matas counted to three before beginning his pursuit, managing to keep a prudent distance most of the time. Twenty-six minutes later, the two novelists came out from the park up by the Dakota. Salinger went down 72nd Street, with Vila-Matas on his heels. They looked like two comic book characters.
On Columbus Avenue, Salinger went into a music store. Vila-Matas bided his time, pretending to be interested in a window display across the street. He saw a reflection on the glass and, startled, realized it was his own face. After about ten minutes, Salinger came out of the music store carrying an orange plastic bag. He continued west on 72nd Street, reached Verdi Square near Broadway, and walked toward the marquee at the entrance of the subway station. Vila-Matas’s blood ran cold at the idea that Salinger might go down to take the train, but that is exactly what he did. After a moment’s hesitation, Vila-Matas broke into a run and did not stop until he found himself inside the station. Salinger was in line at the glass booth. Vila-Matas stepped in right behind him. When it was his turn, Salinger put a dollar through the concave slot underneath the bulletproof glass and showed his left index finger to the attendant, who gazed at him indifferently, took the dollar and slid back a token. Vila-Matas copycatted Salinger’s actions one by one. The booth attendant stared at him with a glint of disdain, and was about to say something, but in the end just took the dollar and gave him his token. Immensely relieved, Vila-Matas entered the netherworld, in pursuit of his prey. After a few minutes, the Number 2 express train to Brooklyn arrived at the station. Salinger stepped into a car, and his pursuer went into an adjacent one, not to arouse suspicion. He watched him for the entire ride through the elongated windows between cars. At Grand Army Plaza, Salinger got off. It was the first time ever that Vila-Matas had set foot in Brooklyn. Once on the street, he flipped up the collar of his raincoat and put on his hat and sunglasses. Some fifty steps between them, the two men walked ten or eleven blocks on Eighth Avenue, and made a right on Second Street, a steep downhill. A few doors before Seventh Avenue, Salinger nimbly climbed the steps and went into a brownstone. When he closed the door behind him, his pursuer ran to the stoop, jotted down the number on the glass pane, continued toward Seventh Avenue, and hailed the first yellow taxi that he saw. Once inside, he showed the driver the hotel’s business card, afraid he would not understand his English. The guy nodded, and off they went. Vila-Matas began to tremble; he could not believe what he had just done. He was proud of himself. Few could boast that they have seen Salinger in the flesh. He decided that he would tell the story in his next book. He would recount it exactly as it had happened, no need to resort to fiction in order to embellish the experience he had just lived through.
Good afternoon, Mr. Vila, did you have a good day? asked the receptionist, handing him the key to his room.
A tremendous one, Enrique, I swear. (No misprint here, the receptionist’s name was also Enrique.) I’ll tell you everything in a second, said the writer, his pulse quickening, but first I need a whiskey. Make it a triple. Right now. It can’t wait.
The receptionist dialed the bar.
Enrique, I need your help, said Vila-Matas, after downing half the glass of whiskey.
Of course, anything, sir.
After finishing his story, the writer killed his drink and said:
I feel better now. I was really worked up. Er…Enrique, you know who Salinger is, of course? Jerome David Salinger?
I’m afraid not, sir, the receptionist replied. I have no clue. Who is he? Is he a soccer player for Barcelona?
Never mind, said Vila-Matas. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a piece of paper. Look here. It’s Salinger’s address.
If I may for a second, sir, the receptionist said, grabbing the paper.
Of course, Vila-Matas replied.
Without uttering another word, Enrique checked the Brooklyn phone book.
What the hell are you doing? demanded the writer.
Just what I feared, sir. There is not a single Salinger in the whole neighborhood, sighed Enrique. Did you happen to check the name on the mailbox?
No, I didn’t, it didn’t occur to me, Vila-Matas replied, slightly upset. Why would I have done such a thing? I know that it was him and that’s enough. Besides, what you say doesn’t make sense. Why would someone like him announce his name in such a way? Salinger is famous for his anonymity. No one knows where he lives.
I wouldn’t be so sure. You’d better double-check.
Damn! Vila-Matas exclaimed. You may be illiterate, but you behave like a writer. When something good happens to a friend, you turn green with envy. Wait, I have an idea. Let’s call a detective agency, they’ll figure it out. Here, give me the phone book.
Together, they looked through the entries under private investigators. The receptionist slid his index finger down a column of names. When Vila-Matas saw the name Pinkerton, he leapt up and said jubilantly:
That one! The one in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler’s books, no less. No need to look further. Give me the number so I can jot it down. Let’s not waste any time. After writing down the number, he said precisely: Go ahead, call it now.
The receptionist took the paper, and infected with the writer’s enthusiasm, quickly punched in the numbers.
Is this the Pinkerton Agency? he asked
Vila-Matas watched him expectantly. From the other end of the line, there emerged a weirdly inflected voice, which sounded like some kind of intergalactic meowing.
The receptionist mumbled an apology and hung up.
Wrong number, sir. That wasn’t the Pinkerton agency.
What number did you dial, you idiot?
The one you gave me, sir.
There were two numbers on the piece of paper, one in red ink above, and the other in blue ink below. Which one did you dial? The red one or the blue one?
The blue one below. Isn’t that what you just wrote down?
No, it’s the other one, man, above. The one below belongs to the writer that Herralde wants me to meet. He has just read the manuscript of his memoir and he says that one day he will be a big shot.
What? Would you like me to call again, sir?
Forget it, he said. I’ve changed my mind. Too much excitement for one day. We’ll try again tomorrow.
The following day, at the same time, Vila-Matas came down to the lobby, but his friend Enrique was not there. Another receptionist informed him in very poor Spanish that Tuesday was Enrique’s day off. Frustrated, the writer went back up to his room. He did not want to wait until the next day, but he wasn’t sure what to do. The new receptionist did not inspire the same kind of confidence that Enrique did. He mulled over the situation, gulping down two little bottles of whiskey from the minibar, occasionally looking over the paper with the phone numbers. Finally, in angry determination, he underlined the words PINKERTON AGENCY and said them out loud several times, as if he were rehearsing. Then suddenly, he lifted the receiver, dialed the number and when he heard someone pick up, said with a heavy accent:
Pinkerton Agency, pleez.
A series of frightful and incomprehensible sounds lodged in his inner ear. Terrified, Vila-Matas hung up. Because of his nerves, he had dialed the number of the unknown writer again.
This is crazy, he thought. No only did I mix up the numbers again, but I don’t know why I am calling when I don’t speak a word of English. I have no other choice but to wait for Enrique until tomorrow.
The matter settled, he took a sleeping pill and drank two more little bottles of whiskey. The following day, when he saw his friend at his post, he said:
Enrique, I am tired of all of this. Do me a favor, call the Pinkerton Agency and settle this damn thing for me. You weren’t here yesterday, so I called them, but when they answered I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
No need to call any more, sir. I took advantage of my day off to solve the mystery.
I don’t get it. What do you mean?
Enrique smiled and showed him an envelope.
Very simple, I went by the address that you wrote down and checked in the mailbox, which is what you should have done in the first place. This letter proves beyond a doubt the identity of the guy you were following.
What have you done, for God’s sake? You stole a letter from the mailbox? That’s a federal crime. They are going to throw both our asses in jail.
I had no other way to convince you, sir. Besides, there’s no harm to the addressee. I’ll tell the bellhop to go to Brooklyn right now and put it back where I got it from, end of story. It’s his job, after all, to do that sort of thing. Without opening it, there is no crime.
Vila-Matas took the envelope and read it:
Paul Auster…But that’s the writer that Jorge wanted me to meet. It’s a small world, Enrique. Our paths have finally crossed.
Years later, when Enrique Vila-Matas read the scene in The City of Glass where Paul Auster gets an anonymous call from someone asking for the Pinkerton Agency, he couldn’t help but smile.
One day I will meet Paul Auster, and then I’ll explain what really happened, although I will never forgive him that it was him and not Salinger who I followed out of the bus.
And it’s true that it bothered him not to have met Salinger in person, which was the reason why, although he very much liked Paul Auster’s work, when the time came to recount the anecdote of the encounter on the bus in Bartleby & Co., he made it Jerome David and not Paul, knowing it was fiction after all. There were several factors that influenced his decision. In the first place, the story was too juicy to let go. Secondly, it had come within a hair’s breadth of being the absolute truth. But above all, he in no way wanted to allow reality to steal from literature such a good tale, that was out of the question. Because of all of this, when he published Bartleby & Co. and readers asked him if he really had run into Salinger on the Fifth Avenue bus, Enrique Vila-Matas smiled mischievously. To be sure, he always felt guilty about Paul Auster, a feeling that only intensified as time went by. Then one day, when a friend of his, a young editor, was traveling to New York, he seized the opportunity and told him.
Take this, Malcolm.
What is it?
It’s a letter for Paul Auster. I have written his phone number on the envelope. It’s a different number, he changed it a long time ago.
Can you tell me what it’s about or is it confidential?
It’s about a whole game of mix-ups in regard to the genesis of his first novel, I’ll tell you the whole story some day. I would like you to give Auster a copy of Bartleby in French. Try to meet him in person, tell him I have changed the details of the story. The writer on the bus was not Jerome David Salinger, but him. Well, that’s what I say in the letter. All you have to do is deliver it to him.
The young editor hesitated.
Why don’t you just mail it?
I want it to be handed to him person, and you’re traveling to New York, what’s the problem?
You know I don’t like Paul Auster as much as the rest of the human race. All this nonsense about chance is a bit tiring.
What does that matter? What I am asking has nothing to do with your taste in literature.
When he had been in New York for a few days, the young editor finally decided to call. On the third ring, a manly voice responded.
Uncannily, Vila-Matas’s friend found it impossible to say anything.
Hello? the voice inquired again.
Without knowing exactly why, the editor, who suffered from the disease of literature, formulated the following question:
May I speak with Mr. Quinn?
After a brief silence, he heard the response:
Is this a joke?
No, no, not at all.
Did I understand you correctly then? You say you want to speak to a Mr. Quinn?
Yes, that’s it, actually…
Can you spell the last name, please? Just to make sure we are talking about the same person.
Now it was Paul Auster who paused.
I’m sorry, you have the wrong number. There is no Quinn here, he said. They both hung up at the same time.
In 1992, Paul Auster published The Red Notebook. A short while after the Spanish edition came out, Enrique and Malcolm were at Giardinetto, a cocktail lounge in Barcelona popular with local writers where they met every Friday night.
Malcolm, listen to this and tell me what you think, asked Vila-Matas, producing a copy of the book.
Enrique read out loud the section from The Red Notebook where Auster talks about how “The New York Trilogy” came about because of a wrong-number call he received. It goes into details of how, in the early eighties, someone called his house for two consecutive evenings asking for the Pinkerton Agency. After hanging up the second time, Auster regretted not having continued the conversation. He waited for a third call that never came; and the uncertainty that followed that silence was the reason why he wrote his first novel.
If what I am saying is true, and it is, Vila-Matas sighed, it’s my fault that Auster became a novelist. Something that he is unaware of to this day… That’s what made me write the letter that I trusted you with. But you too failed me.
Maybe it was better that way. Here, give me the book. Now it’s your turn to be surprised.
Malcolm cleared his throat and read the passage where Auster explains how ten years after the original phone calls, he received a call from someone with a heavy Spanish accent, asking for Mr. Quinn. Malcolm read with particular care the part where Auster says:
I’m sorry, there’s no Quinn here. You have the wrong number.
No shit, Vila-Matas said.
But wait, the editor added, the best part is the ending. Listen to this:
The man apologized and we both hung up at the same time. This is what really happened. Like everything else that I have written in The Red Notebook, it is a true story.
I never told you, Malcolm confessed. But the person who called him that third time was me.
On June 10th, 2006, the two writers finally met in person, at an event at the Cervantes Institute of New York. Two days later, Paul and Siri, his wife, invited me and Enrique to dine at their brownstone in Brooklyn. Also invited were Celine Curiol, the young author of Voices in the Labyrinth, her husband who, I believe, is a correspondent for Liberation in New York, and an enigmatic woman called GB. We sat down for aperitifs in the garden. The Brooklyn light had started to fall over the houses of Park Slope, when the phone rang, disrupting the afternoon’s silence. Siri went to answer it. An unmistakable smile spreading over his face, Enrique Vila-Matas leaned towards Paul Auster and said in his best French:
Speaking of phone calls, Paul, I have a long story to tell you…