Authors: Enrique Vila-Matas
Tags: #Fiction, #Visionary & Metaphysical
ALSO BY ENRIQUE VILA-MATAS
from New Directions
For Paula de Parma
The more avant-garde an author is, the less he can allow himself to be labeled as such. But who cares about that? In fact, my opening sentence is just a McGuffin having little to do with what I intend to relate, though it could be that in the long run all I can tell about my invitation to Kassel and my later trip to that city will eventually have everything to do with that sentence.
As some people know, the best way to explain what a McGuffin is has to do with a train scene: “Could you tell me what’s in that package on the luggage rack above your head?” asks one passenger. And the other responds: “Oh, that’s a McGuffin.” The former wants to know what a McGuffin is, and the other explains: “A McGuffin is an apparatus for trapping lions in Germany.” “But there are no lions in Germany,” says the first. “Well, then, that’s no McGuffin,” replies the other.
The most perfect McGuffin is in
The Maltese Falcon
, the most misleading film in the history of cinema. John Huston’s movie tells of the search for a small statue, which was the tribute the Knights of Malta paid to a Spanish king for an island. Much is said about it—they never stop talking in the film—but in the end the coveted falcon, for which some have even been murdered, turns out to be merely the element of suspense that has allowed the story to advance.
As you’ll already have guessed, there are many McGuffins. The most famous one can be found in the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s
. Who can forget the robbery Janet Leigh’s character commits in the first minutes? It seems so important and turns out to be irrelevant to the plot. However, it fulfills the function of keeping us riveted to the screen for the rest of the movie.
And there are McGuffins, for example, in every single episode of
, where the prelude that opens any one of them has very little or nothing at all to do with the plot of the rest of the episode.
I found my first McGuffin in
The Facts of Murder
, Pietro Germi’s cinematic adaptation of Carlo Emilio Gadda’s novel,
That Awful Mess on Via Merulana
. In this film, Inspector Ingravallo, hyped up on coffee and lost in the labyrinth of his intricate investigation, speaks on the telephone every once in a while with his sainted wife, who we never see. Is Ingravallo married to a McGuffin?
There are so many McGuffins around that just a year ago, one infiltrated my life when I got a phone call one morning from a young woman claiming to be María Boston. She said she was the secretary of Mr. and Mrs. McGuffin, an Irish couple, who would like to invite me to dinner. She had no doubt that I would also be delighted to see them and give them my regards, since they were planning to make me an irresistible proposal.
Were the McGuffins multimillionaires? Did they want, for some obscure reason, to buy me? That’s what I asked as a humorous reaction to her strange, provocative call, surely a joke someone was playing on me.
Normally I would immediately hang up on a call like that, but María Boston’s voice was warm and beautiful, and I was in a good mood that morning, so I played along a little before hanging up and that was my undoing, for I gave young Boston time to drop the names of a few friends we had in common, actually the names of my best friends.
“What the McGuffins want to propose,” she said suddenly, “is to reveal to you once and for all the resolution of the mystery of the universe. They know it and want to pass it on to you.”
I decided to humor her. “And are the McGuffins aware that I never go out to dinner?” I responded. “Do they know that, for the last seven years, I’ve tended to feel happy in the mornings and in the evenings I’m hit hard by an anguish that has me imagining dark, horrible scenarios, making it absolutely inadvisable for me to go out at night?”
“The McGuffins know everything,” said Boston. “They’re aware you’re very reluctant to go out at night.” Even so, they wouldn’t consider that I might want to stay home instead of finding out the solution to the mystery of the universe. It would be a very cowardly choice to make.
I’ve received strange phone calls in my life, but this one took the cake. And as if that weren’t enough, Boston’s voice grew increasingly pleasant; it really had a very special timbre that reminded me of something, though I didn’t quite know what, but which made me feel even more energetic, optimistic, and content than I usually did in the mornings. I asked if she would be going to the dinner where they’d reveal that secret to me. Yes, she said, I’m planning to go; after all, I’m the couple’s secretary and I have certain obligations.
Minutes later, having taken full advantage of my optimistic state of mind, she had managed to completely convince me. I wouldn’t regret it, she said; the mystery of the universe is well worth the effort. My birthday was last month, I said, I’m just mentioning it in case someone is planning a surprise party and got the date wrong. No, said Boston, the surprise is in what the McGuffins are going to reveal, and it’s not what you’re expecting.
And so, three nights later, I showed up punctually for the meeting, which the Irish couple did not attend, but Boston did. She was a tall, luminous young woman with very black hair, a red dress, and marvelous golden sandals; she was intelligent and smart at the same time. As I looked at her, I couldn’t hide an inner lament, which intuitively, young as she was, she caught; she seemed to know that something related to age was happening to me, a deep dejection and sorrow.
Without a doubt I had never seen her before in my life. She was at least thirty years younger than I was. Sorry for the snag, the snare, the windup, she said as soon as we met. I asked what snag, what windup she was talking about. Don’t you see? I’ve ensnared you, the McGuffins don’t exist, she said. And she explained that this had seemed the best way to get me to pay attention, for she guessed that, considering my eccentric literary fame, an extravagant call might be more likely to stir my curiosity and achieve the difficult objective of getting me to go out at night. She had to see me in person to make a proposal, since she feared she wouldn’t get the response she wanted if she asked me over the telephone. And what is this proposal you want to tell me about? Is it the same thing the McGuffins would propose? Above all, she said, she felt happy knowing she had the time ahead of her to be able to set out the proposal her employers, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Chus Martínez (the curators of Documenta 13) had assigned her to convey.
So then, I said, Carolyn and Chus Martínez are the McGuffins. She smiled. Exactly, she said, but now I’d like to know if you’ve heard of Documenta in Kassel. I’ve heard a lot about it, I said. What’s more, some of my friends in the 1970s came back from there transformed by having seen prodigious avant-garde artworks. In fact, Kassel was—for this and other reasons—legendary and has been since the days of my youth; it is an intact legend, my generation’s legend, and also, if I’m not mistaken, that of the generations that followed mine. For every five years, groundbreaking works concentrate there. Behind the legend of Kassel, I ended up telling her, is the legend of the avant-garde.
Well, María Boston said, she had the job of inviting me to participate in Documenta 13. As I could see, she added, she hadn’t exactly lied when she spoke of an irresistible proposal.
That proposal did make me happy, but I contained my enthusiasm. I waited a few seconds before asking what they expected of a writer like me at an art exhibition like that. As far as I knew, writers didn’t go to Kassel. And birds don’t go to Peru to die, said Boston, demonstrating her conversational agility. A good McGuffin phrase, I thought. . . . A brief, intense silence followed, which she broke. They had assigned her to ask me to reserve three weeks at the end of the summer of 2012, to spend each morning in the Chinese restaurant Dschingis Khan on the outskirts of Kassel.
“In a Chinese restaurant?”
“Yes. Writing there in front of the public.”
Given my inveterate habit of writing a chronicle every time I get invited to a strange place to do something weird (over time I’ve realized that all places actually seem strange to me), I had the impression I was once again living through the beginning of a journey that could end up turning into a written tale, in which, as was customary, I would combine perplexity and my suspended life to describe the world as an absurd place arrived at by way of a very extravagant invitation.
I looked María Boston in the eye for a few moments. It seemed she’d done this on purpose so I would end up writing a long article about a strange invitation to Kassel to work in public in a Chinese restaurant. I looked away. And that’s all, she said. Carolyn and Chus and their whole curatorial team were simply asking me to sit on a chair in a Chinese restaurant every day and carry out my normal daily activity as if I were in Barcelona. That is, they were just asking me to write and, of course, try to connect with anyone who came into the restaurant and wanted to talk to me. I mustn’t forget that “interconnection” was going to be a very common concept and recommendation within Documenta 13.
And I wasn’t to think, she said, that I was the only writer who was going to do that number, for they planned to invite four or five others from Europe and the Americas, perhaps one or two from Asia as well.
I was pleased to be invited to Kassel, but not at the idea of having to sit in a Chinese restaurant for three weeks. I was sure of that from the start. Fearing they’d eventually rescind my invitation, I felt obliged to tell María Boston that the offer struck me as too squalid, that she should therefore tell Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Chus Martínez that the very idea that hundreds of German grandparents on senior-citizen outings climbing out of their buses to see what I was writing and interconnect with me in a restaurant threw me mentally, even literally, out of joint.
Nobody said anything about German grandparents, Boston corrected me, rather severe all of a sudden. It was true, nobody had said anything about grandparents or senior-citizen outings, but in any case, I told her I would be grateful for another type of invitation to Kassel: to give a lecture there, for example, even if I had to deliver it in the Chinese dive. A talk on chaos in contemporary art, I said in a conciliatory way. Nobody said anything about chaos, interrupted Boston. It was true, no one had said anything about that. Most likely, I was one of those people who had a long-standing, unsophisticated prejudice against contemporary art and believed it was currently a real disaster or a swindle or any of the above.
Okay, I suddenly agreed, there’s no chaos in current art, no crisis of ideas, no obstruction of any kind. I said that, and then I agreed to go to Kassel. I immediately felt a deep satisfaction; I couldn’t forget that more than once I’d dreamed that the avant-garde considered me one of their own and would one day invite me to Kassel.
Oh, and by the way, who were the avant-garde?
María Boston’s face gradually lit up, and for a moment she looked absolutely radiant. Perhaps she was satisfied at having achieved her mission of getting me to accept the proposal.
I knew why I’d accepted, but it would not do to be too sincere. Apart from the originality and literary nature of the invitation, I’d accepted because I had never imagined that this would one day be within my reach. It was as if they’d asked me to play soccer for my favorite professional team: something that, even if only because I’d just turned sixty-three, nobody was ever going to propose now. Also, in recent years, since overcoming a collapse brought on by the excesses of my old lifestyle, I had been recovering on all levels, and part of that process included opening my writing to arts other than literature. In other words, I was no longer obsessed with just literary material and had opened up the game to other disciplines.
For a man growing old and doing nothing to hide it, going to Kassel meant finding doors opening to a new world. Perhaps there I’d come across ideas other than my habitual ones. Maybe I’d manage to reach—with the patience of a prowler—an approximate vision of contemporary art’s situation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I was curious, besides, to see if there were many differences between the literary avant-garde—if it existed—and the artistic avant-garde that gathered every five years at Documenta. In the literary sphere, the avant-garde had lost ground, if not become almost entirely extinct, though there might still be the odd poetic project of interest. But had the same thing happened in the art world? Every five years, the great anticommercial fair of innovative art was held in Kassel. Documenta was famous for not being overly contaminated by the laws of the market.
I wanted to go to Documenta, I told her, but without having to go to the Dschingis Khan, for there I’d undoubtedly feel mislaid, completely displaced. Boston looked at me, smiled indulgently, and said I had just uttered the key word, for Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Chus Martínez planned to make their Documenta all about displacement, to put their heavy artillery behind this idea; they wanted to place artists outside their habitual mental comfort zones.
I didn’t want to hazard a guess what “mental comfort zones” were for her, but I did want to know if there was still the slightest chance they might offer me something other than spending absurd mornings in the Chinese restaurant. It would be best if I didn’t refuse to set foot in Dschingis Khan, she told me. It was to be the center of operations for successive invited writers and I couldn’t be different from the others. She could reveal in advance that it would all be quite informal. I’d be left with more than enough time to devote to doing what I did best: observing, glancing, walking around like a profound idler; the organizers knew—having read my work, the entire curatorial team had interpreted it this way—that I saw myself as a sort of erratic stroller in continuous perplexed wandering.