Montano, by Enrique Vila-Matas, trans, Jonathan Dunne

A literary looking-glass, impressively fusing essay, fiction and autobiography

Jonathan Gibbs
Thursday 08 February 2007 01:00 GMT

If you have ever wondered who is to blame for all the dross that gets published, here's the answer. It's all the fault of evil moles who live in huge galleries under a volcano on Pico Island, in the middle of the Atlantic, "tirelessly working away, day and night against the literary".

The ravings of a diseased mind, you might say, and you would not be alone. Three pages in, the narrator, the distinguished critic Rosario Girondo, admits: "I am literature-sick. If I carry on like this, literature could end up swallowing me, like a doll in a whirlpool."

The sick critic decides to cure himself by visiting his son, Montano, who has a different problem. After one precocious novel, about writers who give up writing, he finds himself totally blocked. The meeting is an oedipal calamity, and Rosario changes tack.

Rather than curing himself of literature, he decides it would be better for him to turn "into the complete memory of the history of literature... to embody it in my own modest person". So on to Pico, and the moles.

Then, 100 pages in, it stops. Rosario blithely informs us that he invented Montano in order to project on to him his own writer's block. He declares that the next step in his recuperation from literature sickness is to treat us to his autobiography, in the form of a dictionary of literary diarists. This is not talk to make the reader's heart soar. The folding-in of literature on to itself often leads to arid games. But Enrique Vila-Matas, the Spanish author skulking behind Rosario, is in no danger of that.

The names he co-opts into his curious memoir include Gide, Valéry, Borges and Kafka. Most pertinent, though, are mentions of W G Sebald and Claudio Magris, whose books have opened what Rosario calls "new ground in between essay, fiction and autobiography". It is this ground that Montano works, to impressive and delightful effect.

Vila-Matas is far less serious than Sebald or Magris, though he is thoughtful about how writers grow through parasitism on those who came before. But for all the erudition on display (and one of the great merits of Montano is the casual introductions it offers to dozens of European writers), we are never far from a novelistic flourish - a light touch carried through in Jonathan Dunne's fine translation. Will the moles prevail? Not with books like this around.

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