‘Mac & His Problem’ by Enrique Vila-Matas (Review – IBP 2020, Number Three)

After a second successive trip back in time, in a story where we rubbed shoulders with fools and kings, I think we deserve to take a bit of a breather.  Luckily, then, our latest International Booker Prize longlist journey is a more relaxed affair, with little risk of being caught in the middle of an armed conflict.  Today, we’re off to Barcelona, where we’ll be doing nothing more dangerous than walking the streets of the city and reading an old man’s first attempts at diary writing.  So what exactly is his problem, then?  Well, it’s not a problem as such, more a case of history, and fiction, repeating.  Look, let’s just let the man himself explain…

*****
Mac & His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas
– Harvill Secker, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes
What’s it all about?
Having recently lost his job, the sixty-something Mac (a nickname taken from a John Ford movie) has decided to fill his time by taking up writing.  He now spends his days working on his ‘diary’, noting down events from his rather uneventful days before carefully revising them and typing them up on his PC.  While he’s never written before, our friend has always been a big reader, and the descriptions of his daily walks around his neighbourhood, and the people he comes across, are interspersed with comments on writers and stories they remind him of.

A person who crops up very early on in his diary is his neighbour, the well-known writer Ander Sánchez, and a chance conversation provides a new direction for Mac’s writing.  The author produced an intriguing early work called Walter and His Problem, a novel in ten related short stories, and Mac (who read the first half years earlier before casting it aside) takes it upon himself to rewrite the work and improve it.  On taking a second look, though, the old man is surprised by what he finds – there’s something very strange about the book, and it seems as if some of the characters are rather familiar…

Mac & His Problem is enjoyable from the first page, and the figure of Mac, a grumpy old man putting his life down on paper, is a recognisable EVM narrator.  It’s great fun to scurry around the neighbourhood in his company, bumping into Sánchez, the local bookseller, the tailor and the bartender (all this walking is thirsty work).  There’s even a recurring antagonist in the form of Julio, Sánchez’s angry nephew, and these scenes provide a glimpse of Mac’s little slice of Barcelona, with its bars, bums and barbers 🙂

This is important because it’s only since our friend began writing his diary that he’s begun to pay attention to what’s happening outside:

I’ve noticed lately that the things that happen to me seem far more narratable than before I started writing this diary, when I was merely submereged in the eternal monotony of the real and, more specifically, in the tedious maelstrom of the construction world, in the day-to-day business, always glumly marooned on the gray plains of the quotidian.
pp.57/8 (Harvill Secker, 2019)

However, as interesting as some of the incidents that occur are, he’s determined that his diary won’t turn into a novel, claiming to dislike that form of writing.  Somehow, though, we suspect he doth protest a little too much.

Much here will be familiar to anyone who’s sampled Vila-Matas’ work before, what with the usual meta-fiction and the constant name-dropping of books and writers.  Interestingly, however, this all begins to seep into Mac’s life when he begins to work in earnest on his ‘remake’ of Walter and His Problem.  Sánchez’s early experimental novel actually attempts to use the style of writers such as Hebe Urhart, Ernest Hemingway and Jorge Luis Borges in his loosely related chapters, including an epigraph from the writer in question at the start of each section (of course, Mac, ever the book snob, finds most of these efforts unsuccessful…).

What he does find, though, disturbs him, and one of the more interesting aspects of the novel is Mac’s growing paranoia.  What begins amusingly enough with a Dirk Gently-esque recurring joke of believing his horscope in the local newspaper is being written just for him (by a woman he once ditched…) becomes more serious when he realises that there are disturbing parallels between Walter and His Problem and, well, Mac and his problem(s).  This comes to a head in a chapter called ‘Carmen’.  Given that this is his wife’s name, and that she once had a thing with Sánchez, it’s inevitable that suspicions and jealousy begin to bubble up to the surface.

It’s not giving too much away to say that if you take everything Mac says at face value, you’ll be fooled.  Part of the craft of the book is the way, little by little, Mac is forced to reveal his fibs.  Early on we discover that he was pretending to have had a failed building construction business when he was actually fired from his job as a lawyer, and while we initially sympathise with him when Carmen refuses to take his diary ‘work’ seriously, eventually we realise that there maybe something in her complaints:

I spent the whole morning telling myself that there wasn’t a moment to waste.
By the afternoon, nothing much had changed.  Once again, I obsessed over not wasting a minute while wasting them all.
“Just get up and leave the house,” the voice said.
(The voice of death.) (p.149)

It seems that she’s well within her rights to be nagging him.

Overall, Mac & His Problem is a book where it takes a while to work out what’s going on.  Are these the harmless ramblings of a man with too much time on his hands, or is there something more sinister going on?  Even by the end of the book, it’s fair to say you won’t have picked up on everything, but then that’s how Mac often feels, too.  Let’s finish with his own words, a comment after rereading some poems by Samuel Beckett:

The thing I least understood was that business about chickens and their eggs, but, boy, did I have fun not understanding it.  Perfect. (pp.6/7)

Total comprehension can be over-rated 😉

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I love Vila-Matas’ work, but I was a little disappointed with this one.  It’s still a fun read, and Jull Costa and Hughes have done a great job in keeping the light, occasionally pompous voice I’ve found in other Vila-Matas books.  However, the longer it went on, the more I was expecting a development to take it to the next level, and with about twenty pages to go, I realised that it probably wasn’t going to get there.  There is a twist, of course, but I didn’t really think it worked, so I doubt this will make my top six.

Of course, given that I’ve now said no to three books in a row, that’s assuming that there are better books waiting for me to read them!

Will it make the shortlist?
Probably.  Others have enjoyed this far more than I did, and I suspect that my personal view of the book won’t be shared by the judges.  It’s all very clever, and the writing is excellent (with MJC and Hughes on board, you’d expect nothing less), so it has every chance of making the cut, even if I’d be very surprised to see it win.

*****
After our relaxing stopover in Barcelona, it’s time to get moving once more, and our next trip, while Japanese inspired, takes us to a strange dystopian state where you have to be careful what you say, and think.  Keep your head down, try to not to draw attention to yourselves, and (most importantly) remember not to remember…

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