Short Story Review – Enrique Vila-Matas – Far From Here (trans. Rhett McNeil)

For Andrei Petrovich Petrescov, district attorney of Novonikolaevsk, the exhaustion of a day’s work has settled into the paralysing numbness of a life devoted to duty, effort responsibility. He is a single-father, having twice lost a wife to childbirth; his children are a burden, not a pleasure, and his job as district attorney, while remuneratively satisfying, has become dull and routine. A lonely man given to thoughts of the metaphysical, he seems out of step with the world that surrounds him, not quite able to remain current with the trends, mores and beliefs of the times as they face him.

For Enrique Vila-Matas, whose works in English translated thus far are wondrous displays of literary panache and technical genius, Far From Here represents a more subdued angle. The story develops slowly, allowing Andrei Petrovich Petrescov the fullness of time and pages to develop as a character.

Andrei Petrovich Petrescov is a widower two times over. His first marriage left him with the unbearable responsibility of his two children, Anna and Mikhail, now twenty and eighteen years old, respectively: two troubled children, involved in various conspiracies, befriending dangerous subverside types who make no secret of the fact that they are enemies of the Czar. Anna and Mikhail, planning the violent overthrow of all of society’s hallowed institutions in the name of equality, of happiness for all; or, failing that, at least of identical misery for all. The worst thing about it being how obvious they are about it – likely to be caught at any moment. But, then again, it’s hard to deny that there’s a certain ridiculousness to their cabal. What could be more ridiculous than planning the downfall of the Czar from a city as insignificant and provincial as Novonikolaevsk?

Andrei Petrovich Petrescov views his children as perceiving themselves caught up in the make believe of a story, one in which they are the protagonists and, one day, will arrive at their satisfactory conclusion. They are rebelling against the Czar and the government less from an ideological position and more because Dostoevsky wrote a book, Demons, in which (some of) the youth of the day endeavoured to terrorise the state, and because Turgenev wrote a book, Fathers and Sons, in which the younger generation violently opposed their parents, bosses and rulers. These are literary children without having read a book – Vila-Matas refrains from mentioning any texts by name, but there are myriad references throughout.

The first part of this two-part story reminds one of the great, cathedral-like novels from the mid nineteenth century, in which the characters were expected to discuss art and politics, have affairs, become engaged in war; and the novel itself was expected to range across social divides, swooping in on poverty before climbing to the nobility. Vila-Matas employs a certain measuredness of language and the restrained composition of sentences found in Constance Garnett’s translations of Russian authors, where everything described is presented as just so, and the intricacies of the language are used in service to the story’s fondness for precise, unvarnished exposition. In short, the first section is deliberately conservative, concerned with describing an exhausted man using the dated techniques of an earlier, more expansive time.

The second part of the story sees a shift. In it, Andrei Petrovich Petrescov’s tiredness comes to the forefront of his mind, having previously been a throwaway aspect of his condition. Most all of the paragraphs mention his tiredness in some way or another, and the possibility of escape becomes paramount:

The sight of the snow enters the consciousness of Andrei Petrovich Petrescov together with an ancient desire for escape, from childhood, from the days when he wanted to be invisible. These very precise dreams of invisibility have been with him for as long as he’s had a memory, a yearning to be invisible and to move freely among other beings, who likewise turn out to be ethereal.

The metaphysics of the story come into play – as one of his children is arrested and another disappears, as the Trans-Siberian railway completes its progression to Novonikolaevsk, as he recognises his children are as grey and similar as two drops of water, as he admits he has no friends, and the closest person to a friend is his servant, who is required to respond congenially, as he further withdraws from the expectations, the busyness, the responsibilities, the crushing weight of managing it all, for everyone – Andrei Petrovich Petrescov, who yearns so strongly for an escape, suddenly becomes a character in a story. Two of them, to be precise.

Vila-Matas shifts the tectonic plates of the story first gently, and then with a shuddering thud. The first story is told by Andrei Petrovich Petrescov himself; it sees him placing himself as a character in a bedtime story to his children, the plot of which is remarkably similar to what we have just read. This prepares us for the second, which is told from the perspective of an American, whose grandfather heard the first story from his friend, Vasha, who was one of the little daughters of Andrei Petrovich Petrescov. This second story has the added embellishments of Vasha’s experiences with and memory of her father, and is, in effect, the entirety of what we have read thus far. Andrei Petrovich Petrescov, tired beyond imagining and seeking an exit from his existence, has found one by becoming the protagonist in a story, twice and thrice removed from the reader.

The culmination of Andrei Petrovich Petrescov’s shift from person to character-in-a-story occurs immediately before he becomes lost in the two new stories:

As he walks down the long hallway of the west wing of his house, he feels his loneliness more acutely than ever, but also, curiously, finds himself enjoying it. This pleasure is absolutely new to him, and it seems to be directly connected to the sorrow of walking alone down this familiar hallways. Continuing along the corridor, he immerses himself so deeply in an analysis of this newfound pleasure that he ends up feeling as though he is entering into an unknown land, a space where the limits of his capacity for thought can be found. It’s as though he has arrived at a point beyond which one can think no further. He has another, though fleeting, attack of vertigo, as if he were walking along the passage that leads to the empty space outside of all human families, starting with his own.

Now, he has become a character and has shed his existence as a person. Vila-Matas swoops in on the narrative, taking over the narration from Andrei Petrovich Petrescov, which places him at a further remove from the story.

Far From Here is a story that begins quite conservatively, only to use this very technique to assist in shattering the constraints, not of the story or the plot, but of the character. This is Andrei Petrovich Petrescov’s story in a very real way, merging fiction with reality (further framed by the fiction of the story being written by Vila-Matas, and not the narrator), in service of the Russian’s escape from the trappings of an unhappy life. In a sense, all communication is the development of the story of ourselves we wish the others to know; in a sense, we create fictions who we think we really are every day simply by interacting with others. Andrei Petrovich Petrescov represents, after a fashion, the tiredness of a person whose life is not, in fact, enclosed within the spine of a novel and is not, in fact, guaranteed any sort of closure or capstone. He becomes a story and is remembered accordingly, while the man himself remains, working, responsible, exhausted, tired, sick.

Far From Here by Enrique Vila-Matas is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press‘ anthology, Best European Fiction 2011


Author Enrique Vila-Matas
Title Far From Here
Translator Rhett McNeill
Nationality Spanish
Publisher Dalkey Archive Press

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