The Pointless Illogic of Kessel: A Review

by Ralph Dumain


The Illogic of Kessel, by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean & Anna Milsom. New York: New Directions, 2015. 220 pp.

You would think from all the excitement proclaimed in the blurbs, this novel would not be as unbearably tedious as I found it. It is possible to write absorbing avant-garde fiction without traditional characters, plot, or narrative structure, especially if the style or the ideas contained therein are somehow compelling, but this is not the case here. This is one self-absorbed, interminable series of meditations on avant-gardes ejected in a diarrhea of name-droppings. I can’t say I read it as if I was really reading it, it was more like skimming it noting the various references and hoping for something to snare my attention and give it some meaning. I caught many references, little disquisitions about Romanticism, a reference to Stanislaw Lem which impelled me to copy it, and not much else I could focus on. Latin American authors sometimes make this sort of thing interesting. I don’t know what is going on in Spain. But here is what the author says on page 168:

We talked about the difficulty Spaniards had accepting art without a message, accepting literature without the necessary humanist touch or a communist dimension. Spanish realist literature, Chus said, was pre-Manet, that’s why she left the country, really, she couldn’t take it anymore; the economic crisis had served as an excuse to revive the same old, early twentieth-century naturalism. What obstinacy, insisting on reproducing what already exists!

Poor Spain. Borges this is not.

Oh, what is the novel about?  Well, the first-person narrator, a writer, is invited to Kessel, Germany, to participate in Documenta, a quintennial exhibition of contemporary art. He bores the crap out of me for 182 pages, then concludes that Kessel is different. “The city invited illogicality, opening the way toward an unknown logic.” (p. 183) I am mystified why the author fails to drop the name of Kurt Gödel, as he clearly alludes to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

There is a running joke throughout the novel, exploiting the notion of the McGuffin (“MacGuffin” in Wikipedia), a cinematic device popularized by Alfred Hitchcock.

The novel culminates in a lecture given by the narrator, the beginning of which he transcribes:

I came to this city, via Frankfurt, in search of the mystery of the universe and to be initiated into the poetry of an unknown algebra. I also came to Kassel to try to find an oblique clock and Chinese restaurant, and, of course, though I believed it might be an impossible task, I also came to try to find my home somewhere within displacement. I did find it. It’s not far from here. In fact, I’d say that I am in it, because I believe this evening I’m speaking to you from my homey scaffold in the Dschingis Khan.

This is followed by more name-dropping BS. The lecture is not reviewed in a complimentary fashion. The narrator ends with an experience of existential nullity, but finally ends up artistically and otherwise refreshed. I, on the other hand, was merely relieved to be done with this bloody bore.

Written 30 Sept 2017; a few words changed for online publication.


Stanislaw Lem’s bitic literature in ‘The Illogic of Kessel’
by Enrique Vila-Matas

Stanislaw Lem on Borges & genre

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Study Materials on the Web


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Uploaded 29 October 2017

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