Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Abyss of Writing: Literature and the Sublime in Vila-Matas's El Mal De Montano

Academic journal article Bulletin of Hispanic Studies

The Abyss of Writing: Literature and the Sublime in Vila-Matas's El Mal De Montano

Article excerpt

In a recent interview Enrique Vila-Matas said that 'el llamado "mal de Montano" es la enfermedad del que necesita escribir siempre, el mal terrible pero también hermoso del que necesita inventar un universo imaginario [...]: callarse, para él es mortal' (Vila-Matas 2013: 147). These words characterize well the main characters of his novel El mal de Montano (2002) ('Montano' from now on); but, as other attempts at defining Montano's malady, this one does not exhaust its symptoms or explain the pathologic process in question. Montano's writernarrator is unable not to see reality as a repetition of literature; the malady 'lo lleva a contemplar el mundo "en libro"' (Oñoro Otero 2013: 87), 'como si fuera la continuación de un interminable texto' (Vila-Matas 2002b: 55), which he arguably craves to write down. Yet, as Oñoro has noted, there are in the novel two other distinct 'pathologies' that derive from 'el mal de Montano' (Oñoro Otero 2013: 87): the writer's block that 'el joven Montano' experiences, which is also the conflict that opens the novel; and literature's own advance towards disappearance, which eventually becomes the most pressing of the three cases. If 'la que está verdaderamente enferma es la propia literatura', as Oñoro puts it, how is it that 'el mal de Montano' 'se acab[a] transformando en una manera de nombrar los múltiples males que la rodean'? (2013: 87).

Montano's romantic pairing of writing and illness and its use of clinical cases of literary 'patients' to study the nature of writing have an immediate antecedent in Vila-Matas's Bartleby y compañía (2000) ('Bartleby' from now on), where the place of 'el mal de Montano' is occupied by 'el síndrome de Bartleby' (Vila-Matas 2000: 12). The latter obtains its name from Melville's famous character, who renounces action and deflects every demand by replying 'I would prefer not to' (Melville 2004) - 'preferiría que no', as Vila-Matas recently translated it (VilaMatas 2013: 135); and it describes the symptoms of those writers who renounce writing and opt for silence or, less dramatically, simply stop publishing. Montano indeed presents itself as an extension of Bartleby:

A finales del siglo xx el joven Montano, que acababa de publicar su peligrosa novela sobre el enigmático caso de los escritores que renuncian a escribir, quedó atrapado en las redes de su propia ficción y se convirtió en un escritor que, pese a su compulsiva tendencia a la escritura, quedó totalmente bloqueado, paralizado, ágrafo trágico. (Vila-Matas 2002b: 15)

Vila-Matas himself experienced a certain block after writing Bartleby, and thought that the only way out of it was to take himself 'al otro extremo, al lado opuesto del bartlebysmo' (Vila-Matas 2013: 147).

Yet there is a crucial difference in the nature of the writing projects of the writer-narrators of these two novels, one that stems from the distinct functions that symptom and cause play within each of the plots. While in Bartleby the novel is organized around the desire to discover the origin of 'el síndrome de Bartleby' - the cause of so many writers renouncing literature - in Montano it is the desire to cure the symptoms that derive from 'el mal de Montano' that sets the writing of the novel in motion. While in Bartleby the concept of escritor bartleby binds together all those writers whose symptoms are similar, even if their motivations are different or unknown, in Montano the turn of phrase enfermo de literatura is applied to individuals with dissimilar and idiosyncratic symptoms. Bartleby's syndrome refers to 'a set of concurrent symptoms' or a 'characteristic combination of opinions, behaviour, etc.' (OED); Montano's malady, in contrast, points to the disease that provokes certain symptoms. The 'mal de Montano' is one single condition, but it manifests itself in multiple signs and symptoms. And that condition, I will argue, is the desperate belief that literature is too vast to allow for a form of writing that is really new. …

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