Bad Nature by Javier Marias is one of the first titles in a new imprint, Pearl, from the excellent New Directions. The nomenclature is no doubt meant to indicate something small but perfectly formed. Bad Nature is certainly the former at only 57 pages (it has previously been published in English in Granta) and, arguably, also the latter. However, whether it deserves stand alone publication is as much a matter of economics as literary taste; while there is something undeniably attractive about a slim volume that can be easily devoured at one sitting, it compares poorly as an investment in leisure when set alongside a 600 page novel.
Putting page per pound value to one side, this is a gem of a story. It begins, as many of Marias’ novels do, with a series of long, wandering sentences ruminating on a dramatic hook, in this case the idea of being hunted down:
“No one knows what it is to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chaser was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wit for the moment to settle the score.”
The dark opening fades into a lighter tone as, pleasingly, we discover that this is not simply one of those stories with Elvis in the title adding a little pop culture gravitas:
“It all happened because of Elvis Presley in person, or Mr. Presley as I used to call him until he told me it made him feel like his father.”
The narrator, Roy, it unfolds, worked as an interpreter and language advisor to Elvis when he was shooting Fun in Acapulco in Mexico – location filming that was later denied and never used. This decision was, we learn, the result of a visit to a bar in Mexico City which ended with Elvis in retreat and Roy left behind in the company of some angry Mexican gangsters.
Sudden flashes of violence breaking through the surface of the everyday are typical of Marias, but this summary doesn’t suggest the humour that punctuates much of the narrative beforehand. Much of this is caused by Roy’s sympathy for Elvis:
“Every time I watched them shooting a scene I thought, ‘Oh no, my God, not that senor Presley,’ and the amazing thing was that none of it seemed to bother Mr. Presley, he even, with his undoubted capacity for kidding around, enjoyed the horror.”
This is a sympathy that is largely predicated on his dislike of Elvis’ entourage, particularly George McGraw:
“He was one of those overbearing types who are incapable of rectifying their despotic manners even if they’re very far from the five-hundred-square-mile area where their remote and doubtless crooked business dealings matter.”
It is McGraw who causes the problem in Mexico City. While dancing (“so obscenely that his crazed thrusts of the hip were getting in the way of some of the women on the dance floor”) he takes the handkerchief from the hand of one of the local hard men:
“McGraw filched it from him without so much as a glance, and immediately flung it over his shoulders, holding it by the two ends, and rubbing it against himself, up and down, with the customary celerity that we had seen all too often.”
Insults fly and Roy, as interpreter, is caught in the middle. Our own translator, Esther Allen, leaves some of the conversation in Spanish which, although frustrating to the non-Spanish speaker (presumably everyone as otherwise they would surely read it in the original), helps to convey the tension of the incident and the awkwardness of Roy’s position. When Roy translates Elvis’ insult word for word, he is blamed:
“Whatever Elvis said we didn’t understand, but you we understood, you speak very clearly…”
His culpability is further confuse by the fact Elvis was responding to a comment that Roy had not accurate translated as it involved the gender of nouns, unavailable in English. It is typical of Marias that he should tackle philosophical issues of guilt and meaning in the middle of a bar room fight.
The story, and its exploration of the burden of guilt Roy should bear, does not end there. We return full circle to Roy’s sense of being pursued and the reason for it. It’s a story that can make you both smile and shiver – and a perfect introduction to Marias’ work if you have not encountered him before.