For a such a short novel — 84 pages — this is incredibly dense. It is most definitely written for the lovers of literature by a lover of literature, particularly lovers of the period between Dada and Surrealism.
Written as an exploration of a fictional literary and artistic group/secret society, “The Shandies”, Vila-Matas delves into the period with relish. Combining both actual history with a healthy dose of fictional invention, we follow a group of well known writers/artists: Marcel Duchamp, Witold Gombrowicz, Francis Picabia, Federico Garcia Lorca, Man Ray, Georgia O’Keeffe, and of all people Aliester Crowley, among others, as they seek to invent and/or discover a new approach to art and literature via an obsession with “the portable”. What that precisely is is hard to say but is sort of hints around the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’. We listen in on their conversations as they move around various cafés throughout the world (as well as other exotic locales) to discuss what “literature really is: brief, not too serious, and penetrating the depths of the mysterious”. And that’s precisely what this book is in a lot of ways.
A healthy dose of knowledge of this period in literary history will go a long way. For those who are not familiar with these writers and artists, this book will definitely generate one (in fact, there’s even an ‘essential bibliography’ at the end so the unfamiliar reader can explore them). It is an intellectually playful and highly dense exploration into the infinite possibilities of artistic expression as well as a love letter to a particular time and place of literary history. There is a hell of a lot more going on here and there is a lot of ideas to digest and contemplate. A must read for fans of Dada and Surrealism. Definitely recommended.