Meet the author, a novelist disguised as auto-biographer, or vice versa. He’s a sixty-something Catalan writer weary of art’s direction, chronically anxious, and dubious that the avant-garde as he knew it even exists. This will all change, at least in part, when he — Enrique Vila-Matas — is invited (in mysterious fashion) to participate in the 2012 edition of Documenta, the exhibition of contemporary and modern art held every five years in Kassel, Germany.
So begins a screwball if intellectually dense romp through the forest of self and art. Our suffering writer, wallowing in “creative collapse,” is asked to be something of a living installation, a writer in residence in a Chinese restaurant on the edge of a German forest. He goes reluctantly, not knowing just what to say or write, but uses the conceit to rummage as an “enchanted accomplice” through the work of others, a process that becomes a rumination on the infamous avant-guard, whose 21st-century existence the writer (still stuck on Duchamp) is skeptical about. To dramatize one’s life is to make art.
Vila-Mata is his own high wire act, a literary jokester and prankster who manages to name-drop copious contemporaries (American curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is present, as is Spanish artistic “headhunter” Chus Martínez), as well as cutting edge writers and painters. Can a zany doubter find relief? Can Kassel and the “poetry of an unknown algebra” sooth the author’s sense of intellectual displacement? Can surreal installations and a brief flirtation with a pink-legged hound stanch European melancholy? Vila-Mata’s central mantra is something he picked up from Salvador Dalí: Se non è vero, è ben trovato, basically, “if it’s not true, I’m happy to meet it.” Documenta and Kassel provides the actuality that the semi-fictional narrator uses to generate his caprice, slowly working toward a congratulatory gush — “to create art is the one thing that actually intensifies the feeling of being alive,” he concludes, thanking Kassel “for infecting me with enthusiasm and creativity and categorically refuting that contemporary art [is] finished.”
Vila-Matas’ cheerful awakening seem sincere enough, yet he’s still at his best with skepticism. That’s when he rightly identifies the limitations of infinite freedom of choice: “Liberal democracy, by tolerating everything, absorbing everything [makes] any text futile, no matter how dangerous it might appear to be…” True enough, dulling both Vila-Matas’ clapping and clouding the Europe he tries hard to love but can’t entirely applaud.