An Injection of Humility

May 19, 2020

The reader of crime fiction, this detective-reader so common today, is used to reading with such disbelief, with a suspicion so keen he even distrusts Cervantes when he says he cannot remember the place in la Mancha where the action takes place — could he be the killer? And the detective-reader can do anything. Reading the opening lines of The Savage Detectives (“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony”) he suspects Bolaño is in fact telling us that in the streets of the Roman Empire — where Philip K. Dick insists we still live — saying a password (“visceral realism”) is enough to join the poets in the catacombs who conspire against the empire.

In the past weeks this detective-reader is giving way to the pandemic-reader. The former remains there, questioning ever more the official narrative of the virus, so antiseptic and bureaucratic, so full of curves, peaks and percentages, but he is losing ground. The pandemic-reader is a type that I can identify with, as I read consumed by the stress of the media coverage of the health crisis. For example only yesterday I was reading David Forster Wallace explain that we cannot imagine a life without television because “TV is as much a part of life as Toyota or traffic jams.” I was startled for a moment by DFW’s affirmation that we can’t imagine life without traffic jams when for weeks the contrary has been proven.

And today I found myself immediately at ease as I started Jordi Soler’s peerlessly literary essay on “microjourneys,Secret Map of the Woods. Soler speaks of the atavistic impulse that survives like a castaway in our hard drive, this impulse that led our ancestors, ninety thousand years ago, to explore the surroundings of their caves and ensure their families would have a calm night. In theory greater journeys make us more enlightened. Soler proposes, as an antidote, that we find a map whose center is our home, and we start to walk the surrounding streets to harvest experiences from our own environment, to see places we have never taken the time to see. In sum he proposes we establish a cartography of this micro-universe centered in our homes. A task I think would suffice for now, during our weekly trips for groceries. An injection of humility. Why not? A brief and reasonably humble journey. And after all, it could return us to a better rhythm of life than the one we had when we were constantly traveling to the ends of the world by plane.

Translated by Paulo Lemos Horta


Enrique Vila-Matas is the author of A Brief History of Portable Literature,which tells its own tale of a secret literary society that includes Duchamp, García Lorca, and O’Keefe. A Knight of France’s Legion of Honor and winner of numerous awards including the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger and the prize of the Royal Spanish Academy, his latest works to appear in English are Mac’s Problem (New Directions) and Vampire in Love (And Other Stories).

Paulo Lemos Horta is the author of Marvellous Thieves: Secret Authors of the Arabian Nights (Harvard), Cosmopolitanisms, with Bruce Robbins (NYU), and Aladdin: A New Translation, with Yasmine Seale (Liveright/ W.W. Norton).