by Enrique Vila-Matas
According to the presumably reliable bibliographical information available over at Enrique Vila-Matas' website, his 1985 Historia abreviada de la literatura portátil [Abbreviated History of Portable Literature] has been translated in Brazil, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Switzerland, and Turkey but, after 25 years and counting, has not yet been deemed worthy of an English-language translation. I can only surmise that somewhere a Norwegian translator must be yucking it up at the expense of his/her major market colleagues. Sigh. Whatever the case may be, it's too bad that EVM's irreverent Historia abreviada--a sort of devilish distant cousin to the non-fiction likes of more widely disseminated cultural history works such as Maurice Nadeau's A History of Surrealism--has yet to make it onto English-speaking shores as I have no doubt whatsoever that many/some/OK, maybe just a few of you would get a huge kick out of its Jorge Luis Borges, Marcel Schwob, and J.R. Wilcock-inspired hijinks masquerading as an account of a 1924-1927 secret society "starring" Walter Benjamin, Aleister Crowley, Marcel Duchamp, Georgia O'Keefe, Francis Picabia and a galaxy of other mostly Euro luminaries dedicated to the propagation of the portable art lifestyle. Just what is this portable art nonsense all about? Well, I'm glad you asked because the narrator, supposedly a Barcelona-based investigator of the movement and evidently quite the collector of anecdotes and aphorisms related to it as well, is all too happy to describe "los shandys" [the Shandys] as a fun-loving DADA/Surrealists-like group of conspirators defined by a high degree of madness and dedicated to 1) creating art that can fit within the confines of a suitcase and 2) living out their lives as examples of Duchampian machines célibataires par excellence. Other typical but not necessarily essential Shandy attributes: "espíritu innovador, sexualidad extrema, ausencia de grandes propósitos, nomadismo infatigable, tensa convivencia con la figura del doble, simpatía por la negritud, cultivar el arte de la insolencia" ["an innovative spirit, extreme sexuality, lack of ambition, tireless nomadism, a tense coexistence with one's double, solidarity with black culture, and cultivating the art of insolence"] (13). As with the two other Vila-Matas works I've read previously, there's no shortage of memorable literary history and/or memorable spurious literary history quotes to be found in this essay-like contraption; for example, the Paul Valéry Monsieur Teste epigraph that opens things up--"El infinito, querido, es bien poca cosa; es una cuestión de escritura. El universo sólo existe sobre el papel" ["The infinite, my dear, is hardly anything at all; it's just a question of writing. The universe only exists on paper"]--probably represents the serious side of things rather well, and the alleged Marcel Duchamp proclamation about parasitism being one of the fine arts (90) definitely represents the waggish side of things just as persuasively. However, I'm also sort of partial to what the narrator represents to be Hermann Broch's condemnation of the portable artistes--"No es que sean malos escritores, sino delincuentes" ["It's not so much that they're bad writers as that they're delinquents"] (14)--and to the linguistic praise that Juan Villoro bestows on Vila-Matas himself in referring to the author as "el catalán que escribe en español para mentir con libertad" ["the Catalonian who writes in Spanish to lie with impunity"]. You won't find that last quote in the book, of course, but hopefully you get the picture by now. A righteous prank.
Vila-Matas at the age of 5