Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas (Porque ella no lo pidió, 2007) translated from the Spanish by Valerie Miles New Directions (2015) 89 pp
In 2015 New Directions has graced us with three books by Enrique Vila-Matas: A Brief History of Portable Literature, Illogic of Kassel (review here), and Because She Never Asked. They are excellent, I recommend each, but if you’re looking for a fantastic, quick introduction to Vila-Matas — shoot, if you’re looking for a fantastic book in general — I’d suggest starting with Because She Never Asked, which comes to us as part of New Direction’s petite Pearl Series.
I have liked Vila-Matas, and I admire him more and more with every book as I learn more about what he’s doing to the point that I love his work now and actively look forward to more. He is serious and playful, but his work can be quite dense and intricate, and getting the full effect a reader must often rely on some familiarity with lesser known corners of literary history. Consequently, my own jumping off point into the work of Vila-Matas, Never Any End to Paris, fell a bit flat for me. In my review, which you can read here, I said: “This is the perfect book for someone out there, but I still had a hard time getting through it.” Not that I’d change anything Vila-Matas does; I just need to be better prepared. In approaching other works by him, I’ve tried to do just that. In contrast, Because She Never Asked is serious and playful, has an ingenious plot and structure, and yet is relatively straight-forward for newcomers.
The book is divided into three parts. First we get what could be a stand-alone short story called “The Journey of Rita Malú.” In this story, we learn about this Rita Malú and her uncanny resemblance to the real celebrity artist Sophie Calle. For those who don’t know anything about Calle, I think that’s okay; in this book, familiarity with Calle’s work strengthens the themes but is not requisite to following the themes. For all intents and purposes, Calle is a fictional character. Rita, who looks like Calle, has a desire to adopt Calle’s identity, for fun and to see just how good she can imitate life, becoming, in some way, a piece of art herself. Finding this kind of existence somewhat disappointing, Rita changes everything and becomes a private detective, intent on helping a woman find her ex-husband, a famous author who disappeared and has not been sending alimony.
The writer had published his fifth novel not long ago, in which he staged his own disappearance. And he had now, as it were, vanished into the very text itself. He hadn’t been seen since the book was released.
The remainder of the story is about Rita’s quest to find this author and to understand his motives.
In the next part, “Don’t Mess with Me,” we start with this revelation:
I wrote the story “The Journey of Rita Malú” for Sophie Calle.
So Rita Malú is a fictional character, written by an author who sounds like Vila-Matas himself, for an artist. This author — I’ll just call him Vila-Matas for easier reference — was approached by Calle herself who asked him to write a story for her. Her part in all of this would be to become that character, to live whatever Vila-Matas wrote: “In short, you write a story, and I’ll bring it to life.”
And so we get Rita Malú, the woman Calle would become, the woman who wants to act like Calle but who then breaks off to find another hidden author. Unfortunately for Vila-Matas, once he begins the project Calle keeps coming up with excuses for why she cannot start her part quite yet — her computer didn’t work, her mother is dying, for example — leaving Vila-Matas in a bit of a lurch. After all, what author wouldn’t love to see his stories brought out of the text and into real life? Vila-Matas discovers that there are at least a few authors who did not want to; he was not Calle’s first, or even fourth, choice: she’d already asked, among others, Paul Auster and Jean Echenoz. Vila-Matas couldn’t resist, though, and now he wonders if he might actually be part of Calle’s own art project (Calle is known for needling her way into strangers’ private lives and then portraying this in art).
All of this leads Vila-Matas to a crisis, which he is writing about from a hospital bed. And thus we get to the third part, “The Center of the Tangle,” where we learn even more about the strange project and Vila-Matas reveals more tangles in the narrative thread, which we might guess at given the book’s title.
Because She Never Asked is an impressive exploration of putting life into narrative and bringing narrative to life. We cannot trust any of what we’re reading — I, for one, have no idea if any of this actually ever happened to Vila-Matas, or if he shares the motives of his character in the book. And as playful as the book is, it is still very serious about these issues, looking at them not just from artistic angles but from existential ones as well:
Death led me to reflecting on life. But what life? It was high time, I told myself, that in the chaos of our days, we start asking ourselves what we really mean by life; what exactly are we talking about when we talk about it? Maybe what we’re always talking about is actually death, after all.