February 10, 2009

Montano's Malady, or the overwhelming complexities of "complexity

At around one o'clock last night, I had a curious case of literature-sickness. Fiction was bleeding into reality, reality into fiction. I could not move or pace about the room, as Hollywood tells us anyone in distress is prone to do, or dart from Spain to Chile to Hungary, as the narrative of Montano's Malady does incessantly. I could hardly move at all, for fear of waking a sleeping girlfriend beside me. A storm of postmodern irony, however, was well and truly brewing in my already tired and warped mind, just as the snowstorm outside was licking Leamington clean. In fact, that probably didn't help: earlier that evening I'd had to convince a wife-beating husband, drunken and shameful, to get off the road as he was pacing the slushy slug-trails of passing cars waiting to be run over, and as Villa-Matas tells me, snow means death, as Robert Walser and W.G.Sebald's grandfather both died in 1956 from mountain-hiking...

If you have read Montano's Malady, then this kind of frantic switch between stories and life, in which no real world exists except for the world of literature inside the narrator's mind, might perhaps be vaguely familiar. The character at the heart of the novel is so bound up in the world of books that he makes reference to at least two writers a page, so immersed in his cultured universe that he cannot help but view the world through a literary prism. What made my head spin even more furiously, though, is when I realised I was just as lost in that world, that Villa-Matas seemed to me to be talking about the Warwick Writing Prize, that for me as well, fact and fiction were converging...

Just the nightmares of a slowly nodding off Student shadow panellist, you might think. But I would say that this is crucial to the prize, crucial to the way in which the books on the shortlist must deal with the theme of "complexity." This is one of my favourite passages of the novel, and it tells of a short conversation between the neurotic narrator and his companion Tongoy:

I asked him if he had not noticed that for the extremely complex things he had to say he used a language that was very simple, very plebian and far removed from my brilliant literary style. He looked at me again in disbelief at what I said, his eyes shone, his pointed Draculean ears had suddenly gone red. He said to me that perhaps complexity was a weakness and that I had not realized, despite being so wise and such a wonderful critic, that the strength of Kafka, for example, resided precisely in his lack of complexity. He said this and laughed, convinced he had won the round. "You don't know," I replied, "how glad I am to hear you talking about literature and also how glad I am of your strength...you don't know how much I admire an ugly man like you."

It is precisely the "Montano's Malady", the sickness of delving too deep into a subject that one is lost in it, that the writers of the shortlist are within an inch of falling into. They must, just as they discuss a complex subject, realise it's complexity at the same time. They must be both the Villa-Matas' narrator and Tongoy, exploring a complicated world but illuminating it with simplicity to the reader. As David Morley suggests in his introductory video, this is wide-ranging prize and any member of the Warwick staff was allowed to submit a book: the way I see it, the winner must appeal just as much to a mathematician to a chemist to an English student. Villa-Matas can mention all the writers he wants, if the book still conveys meaning (which I believe it does) to those that aren't familiar with the literature he refers to, just as I hope to enjoy my next book, Mad, Bad and Sad, with limited knowledge in the field of psychology. Isn't that the tightrope that Alex Ross walks constantly in The Rest is Noise, referring to musical theory and chord progressions in the slimmest of sentences before focusing on another aspect of the music?

It seems to me that Montano's Malady has drawn a line in the sand which the non-fiction books are not allowed to cross, that of a complete loss of control over a subject matter and its presentation to a reader. But perhaps I just want to avoid more nightmares...

Julian Gyll-Murray


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