Enrique Vila-Matas, 1985
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean & Thomas Bunstead, 2015
“as is well known, to be born is to begin to die.” (13)
A Brief History of Portable Literature is a brief novella with much to say in a complex and whimsical way of saying it. This is the story of a secret society of novelists and artists, The Shandys, who supposedly existed in Europe during the modern period following the first World World and shortly after the second. The Shandy’s primary aim was to create literature that was “portable,” or in other words, brief, as is this novella. But the brevity isn’t just out of economy of words, but to demonstrate that brevity in size of text need not be paired with brevity of scope. This actual novella includes many true life novelists in its scope, including Duchamp, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Hemmingway, Riguat, and many others. The plot ranges from a misguided trip to Africa in search of revelations, to travels to New York art scene, to epidemics of suicide, to secret meetings in a submarine, to the eventual crumbling of the Shandy society through one of its members devotion to Satanist beliefs. There is a lot going on here in the slim 84 pages and it somehow works, provided the reader suspends disbelief in the enjoyment of the ride.
Much of that suspension of disbelief mus be attributed to the semi-nihilistic and anarchistic Shandy belief system of free-living and disconnection from societal norms:
“The portable writers always behaved like irresponsible children. From the outset, they established staying single as an essential requirement for entering into the Shandy secret society or, at least, acting as though one were.” (3)
The bachelerohood nature of the creative is a central theme to this novella and is probably the only take away I gathered from my reading. It is, admittedly, an ambitious read that some readers may find overly academic, but I believe that such a reaction misinterprets the free-spirited intention of this book. Yes, many artists and creative types have an academic vein to their behaviors and beliefs, but ultimately their creativity is motivated by a need to demonstrate vision and originality that extends beyond themselves. Interestingly, a book that is overly focused on the necessity of bachelerohood to achieve such creativity adeptly explores the contradictions of identity and lineage:
“Am I going to be my father? Does this mean that my whole life has been a fantasy lived in a another person’s name? Are we nothing more than our ancestors, and never ourselves?” (41)
With passages such as the one above, this brief history manages to touch upon central themes that extend beyond creativity or literature that are central to human identity.
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