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  • Published: 16 April 2019
  • ISBN: 9780143788454
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 224
  • RRP: $32.99

Mac and His Problem



I’m fascinated by the current vogue for posthumous books, and I’m thinking of writing a fake one that could appear to be “posthumous” and “unfinished” when it would, in fact, be perfectly complete. Were I to die during the writing process, the book really would be my “final, interrupted work,” and that would, among other things, ruin my great dream of becoming a falsifier. Then again, a beginner must be prepared for anything, and I am just that, a debutant. My name is Mac. Perhaps because I am only a beginner, the best and most sensible thing would be to wait a while before attempting anything as challenging as a fake “posthumous” book. Given my status as a writing novice, my priority will be not to launch straight into that “last” book or to create some other kind of fake, but simply to put pen to paper every day and see what happens. And then there might come a time when, feeling more prepared, I decide to make a stab at that book falsely interrupted by my death, disappearance, or suicide. For the moment, I will content myself with writing this diary, which I am starting today, feeling utterly terrified, not even daring to look in the mirror for fear of catching sight of my head hunched down inside my shirt collar.

As I said, my name is Mac. I live here in the Coyote district. I’m sitting in my usual room, as if I’d been sitting here forever. I’m listening to Kate Bush, and Bowie’s lined up next. Outside, the summer looks set to do its worst, and Barcelona is preparing — so the weathermen say — for a sharp rise in temperatures.

I’m called Mac after a famous scene in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine. My parents saw the movie shortly before I was born and particularly liked the part when Sheriff Wyatt asks the old barman in the saloon:

“Mac, you ever been in love?”

“No, I been a bartender all my life.”

They loved the bartender’s response and ever since then, since the day in April in the late 1940s when I was born, I’ve been Mac.

Mac here, there, and everywhere. I’m Mac to everyone. In recent years, on more than one occasion, I’ve been mistaken for a Macintosh computer. And that always tickles me, perhaps because, as far as I’m concerned, it’s far better to be known as Mac than by my real name, which is just awful, a tyrannical imposition by my paternal grandfather, and I refuse even to pronounce it, still less write it.

Everything I say in this diary I’ll be saying to myself, because no one else is going to read it. I withdraw to this private space where, among other things, I’m trying to ascertain if — as Nathalie Sarraute once said — writing really is an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote. This is a secret diary of initiation, which doesn’t even know yet if it’s showing signs of having been started. I, on the other hand, text certainly have started giving out signals that, at the age of sixty-plus, I’m embarking on a new path. I’ve waited too long for this moment to arrive to throw it all away now. The time is nigh, if it isn’t already upon me.

“Mac, Mac, Mac.”

Who’s speaking?

It’s the voice of a dead man who appears to be lodged inside my head. I assume he’s trying to advise me not to rush things, but that’s no reason to rein in my hopes and aspirations. That voice isn’t going to frighten me, and so I’ll proceed exactly as I intended to. Does the voice not realize that for two months and seven days, ever since the family construction business went bust, I’ve felt both demoralized and immensely liberated, as if the closure of all our offices and the abrupt suspension of payments has helped me find my place in the world?

I have my own reasons for feeling better than when I earned my living as a prosperous builder. However, that newfound happiness— yes, let’s call it that — isn’t exactly something I’m aching for other people to notice. I dislike all forms of ostentation. I’ve always felt a need to be as inconspicuous as possible, which is the origin of my tendency, whenever possible, to hide.

Lying low, hunkering down with these pages will keep me entertained; although I would just say that, if, for some reason, I should be discovered, that wouldn’t be a catastrophe either. In the meantime, I prefer for this diary to remain secret, which gives me greater freedom to say what I like, to say now, for example, that you can spend years and years believing yourself to be a writer, safe in the knowledge that no one’s going to bother telling you: “Quit kidding yourself, you’re not.” Now, if, one day, that same would-be writer decides to make his debut, to knuckle down and finally put pen to paper, that bold beginner will immediately notice, if he’s honest with himself, that this activity has nothing to do with the vulgar idea of believing himself to be a writer, because — and I want to say this now with no more beating about the bush — in order to write one must cease to be a writer.

Although in the next few days I’ll agree to accept the paltry sum from the sale of the apartment that, up until now, I’ve managed to hang on to after my economic ruin, I worry about ending up entirely dependent on Carmen’s business. Or worse, having to ask for help from my children. Who would have thought that one day I would be at the mercy of my wife’s furniture restoration workshop, when only a few short weeks ago, I was the owner of a rock-solid construction company? It worries me having to depend on Carmen, but even if I lost everything, I don’t think I would be any worse off than when I was building houses, lining my pockets with gold, but also plagued with all manner of frustrations and neuroses.

Although life’s mundane affairs have led me down unanticipated paths, and although I’ve never written anything of a literary nature before, I’ve always been passionate about reading and an aficionado of brevity. First it was poetry, then it was short stories. I love short stories. I don’t, on the other hand, have much sympathy for novels, because they are, as Barthes said, a form of death, transforming life into Fate. If I were to write a novel, I’d like to lose it the way you might mislay an apple after buying a whole bagful from the local Pakistani convenience store. I’d like to lose it just to prove that I don’t care one bit about novels and prefer other literary forms. I was deeply impressed by a very short story by Ana Maria Matute, in which she said that the story has an old vagabond heart that wanders into town, then disappears. . . . Matute concludes: “The story withdraws, but leaves its mark.” I sometimes tell myself that I was saved from a great misfortune when, from a very early age, everything conspired to leave me without even a moment to discover that to write is to cease to write. If I’d had the necessary free time, I might now be oozing literary talent, or else be quite simply destroyed and finished as a writer, but in either case entirely unable to enjoy the marvellous beginnerish spirit I’m relishing at this precise moment, this perfect moment, on the dot of noon on the morning of June 29, just as I’m preparing to crack open a bottle of 1966 Vega Sicilia, experiencing, let’s say, the joy of someone who knows he’s still unpublished and is celebrating the start of this apprentice’s diary, this secret diary, and looking around him in the silence of the morning, aware of a faintly luminous air, which may exist only inside his brain.




At the point when one can begin to call evening night, and when I was already slightly tipsy, I decided to dig out a 1970 Spanish edition of Poems by Samuel Beckett. The first section of the book is entitled Whoroscope. It’s a meditation on time and was written and published in 1930. I understood it less than when I first read it, but, for whatever reason, perhaps precisely because I understood less, I liked it much more. Those hundred lines by Beckett on the passing of the days, dissipation, and hen’s eggs sound distinctly Cartesian, or like Descartes’s ventriloquized voice. The thing I least understood was that business about chickens and their eggs, but, boy, did I have fun not understanding it. Perfect.


I wonder why it is that today, knowing myself to be a mere novice, I worked my fingers to the bone trying in vain to begin this diary with a few impeccable opening paragraphs. The hours I spent on this absurd enterprise! To say that I have plenty of time and nothing else to do is no excuse. The fact is that I wrote everything in pencil on pages torn from my notebook, then went through it with a fine-tooth comb, typed it on my computer, printed it out, reread it, studied the corrected version, and edited it some more — which is when a writer really writes — then, after transferring this back onto my PC, I erased all trace of what I’d written by hand and gave final approval to my notes of the day, which have remained buried inside my computer’s enigmatic innards.

I realize now that I behaved as if I didn’t know that — ultimately —perfect paragraphs don’t stand the test of time, because they are mere language, and can be destroyed by a sloppy typesetter, by changes in fashions and usage, in short, by life itself.

But, says the voice, since you’re only a beginner, the gods of writing can still forgive you your mistakes.

Mac and His Problem Enrique Vila-Matas

A funny, erudite novel from one of the great European storytellers, with the process of writing and creation playfully at its heart.

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