BEF2011/6 – Far from Here [Spain: Castilian]

11/02/2011

Despite the stirrings of political agitation and the breath of dissent blowing across her steppes the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris was dominated by the achievements of the glittering Russian Empire.  Amongst the wonders and showpieces Russia boasted a Grand Prix de Champagne-winning wine (a coup in France), the awarding of a gold medal to Lavr Proskuryokov for a bridge in Krasnoyarsk, and the appearance of a cultural icon that has become more than just a child’s toy, it has become a tangible metaphor for recursive phenomena: the matryoshka doll.  These dolls, you probably know, are (traditionally) carved wooden dolls, hollow, that come in a set of about a half-dozen.  They are of a size that the largest of them encapsulates the penultimate doll, which in turn encapsulates the next smallest (and so on), down to the diminutive last.  Matryoshka dolls, in their recursive function, serve to illumine the structure of Enrique Vila-Matas’ Best European Fiction 2011 story Far from Here, and it is for this reason that they open this review.

One of Vila-Matas’ great strengths is his structural playfulness, his penchant for revealing fact to be fiction, for subverting a reader’s expectation of a novelist’s responsibility (doesn’t exist) to clearly mark and segregate the invented from the “reality” of the fiction itself.  He confronts you with the artifice of the work; he does so in his novels and he does so here in this short piece.

Andrei Petrovich Petrescov is a district attorney in Novonikolaevsk (now Novosibirsk), a bourgeois with six children.  He is a civil servant in autocratic Russia, and so is a single node in a huge bureaucratic network.  When he lets his mind wander, it takes him back to the first anniversary of the death of his second wife (the first one is dead, too).  We expect to read about her, to perhaps be privy to a memory, but instead we get this:

Without knowing why, [his mind] takes him back to the spring day in 1898 when the commemoration of the first anniversary of his second wife’s death took place; it was something of a special day because it coincided with the celebrated opening of the Ob River Bridge in Novonikolaevsk, an event that brought prosperity to the town, since along with the bridge they’d just finished construction of the big train station (through which the Trans-Siberian Railway would pass in the near future) and its warehouses and repair shops…And thanks to this new commerce and the creation of new businesses, the town began to transform  into a small city.  All that remained now was to top all this off with the grand celebrations in honour of the official arrival, one month from now, of Novonikolaevsk’s status as a city.

Another paragraph follows this as Andrei Petrovich Petrescov thinks about leaving law and getting into the burgeoning Novonikolaevsk banking sector.  He admits to spending too much time at work and not enough time with his family.  To nobody’s surprise he understands not one of his six children.  Six?  No, there are really only three children, for Vila-Matas pairs them off: Mikhail and Anna, the two eldest, are revolutionaries fighting for the Cause, they are the incendiary present, Dmitri and Seriozha, his two passive, “spirit-impoverished” sons, and the mysterious twin girls, Vasha and Olga, representative of Novonikolaevsk’s unknowable future.  Andrei Petrovich is, sadly, the past.  He is already dead.  When the revolution comes, as history shows it will, he’ll be swept away and blocked by the invisible barrier that separates epoch from epoch, trapped in old Czarist Russia.

Andrei Petrovich’s daughters are preternaturally inquisitive.  Or, their inquisitiveness is precociously insightful and philosophically cuts to the quick.  They ask their father,

Why is there something instead of nothing?

Are we, as a species, going to kill ourselves off?

Is there life after death?

He can only answer them with silence:

…his children are talking about “something instead of nothing,”…they must have started to think about those distant times in which, if truth be told, there was nothing; that is to say, in those remote times when there was only God.

He is right.  These are metaphysical problems that have troubled man for millennia.  They are the core of great art, they are the engines driving many of the world’s greatest novels.  But here they appear naked and stripped of the trappings of fiction; they are unearthed from beneath metaphor and plot and reappear alien and menacing.  They have long lain beneath the soil of the fiction that we read and we are shocked to recognise that they are, in fact, the first questions, entirely human.

For Andrei Petrovich, for the gentry of pre-revolutionary Russia, the physical nature of reality is bound with the nature of Russian society, and his response when Vasha and Olga raise their ontological queries manifests as hunger.  Andrei Petrovich sees in his daughters the future of Russia, and it is alien.  He knows that his time is passing and he can already feel himself evaporating like a ghost in the sun and so he desires the tangible sensations of chewing and swallowing, the sight and smell and taste of food that comes from land not long ago farmed by serfs, food prepared by a servant, a reminder of his place not just in Russian society, but, consequently, an anchor to his place in the cosmos, too.

Enrique Vila-Matas writes his fictions not with the eye of a novelist (there is little that is traditionally novelistic about his work (see Bartleby & Co.)), but with the eye of a cartographer.  His work straddles boundaries, be they political, social, temporal, artistic, or other.  In Montano’s Malady he vaulted the walls separating genres and blended diary and narrative from a self-reflexive narrator, creating something that rested comfortably on neither form.  Far from Here is a much more straight forward story, and it too exists on the edge.  It is no accident that Vila-Matas sets his story on January 17, 1904.  This is no arbitrary date.  Rather, it is the day on which Chekhov premiered  his play, The Cherry Orchard, a play about the decline of the Russian aristocracy and the rise of the middle-class, a play that marked the terminus of Chekhov’s dramatic work.  But why Russia?  Vila-Matas has no apparent reason for choosing Russia over almost any other place in fin-de-siècle Europe, but the immanent revolution of 1905 provides a strong framework for his story’s theme.  Andrei Petrovich is a man who will not survive beyond his own epoch.  That’s not to say that he will die in the revolution, for Vila-Matas intimates no such darkness.  Rather, he will be witness to his way of life and the milieu in which he lives it falling beneath the wheels of the century that is steaming toward him.  This is his weakness: he lacks the ability to adapt to the vicissitudes of history, so profuse and often violent in Russia.

A final word on the structure of the piece.  Vila-Matas employs a technique to end the story that will be familiar to those who have read his previous work Montano’s Malady.  After telling a story to his daughters in which he is the central character, there is a sudden shift and the narrator is revealed as someone unexpected: an American from modern-day Malibu, a world away from 1904 Russia.  This man tells us that

Vasha recounted [her father’s story] – as a story – to her closest friend, my grandfather Maurice, who counted me among his grandchildren, me, to whom this story has been transmitted almost intact, faithfully passed down through a delicate family chain that has saved from oblivion the almost precise memory of the noctambulatory words of that district attorney from Novonikolaevsk who one night wound up wishing he were merely a character in a story…

One sees now the matryoshka structure of Far from Here.  At the innermost layer, the smallest doll, is Andrei Petrovich (as a character in his own story), then Andrei Petrovich himself, then Vasha, his daughter.  After Vasha comes the Frenchman Maurice who in turn is cupped by his grandson the nameless American narrator.  And outside of him, wrapping them all in his authorial omniscience, is Vila-Matas himself.

See also: Bartleby y Montano

‘Far from Here’ is translated from Castilian by Rhett McNeil.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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