The Snares of Memory

Juan Marse’s The Snares of Memory (translated by Nick Caistor) tells a story about telling a story. In the novel the narrator – Marse himself we are led to assume – is employed to write a film treatment based on a true story which took place in 1949 when a prostitute was murdered in the projection booth of a cinema – strangled by the rolls of film around her neck. The killer is her occasional lover, and the projectionist, Fermin Sicart, but, even years later, his motives remain unclear:

“He can remember that he killed a prostitute but has absolutely no memory of why.”

Marse at first finds this difficult to accept:

“How could someone remember the details of something so terrible – a murder by strangling no less – and not remember why they had done it?”

In the course of the novel, however, he will have the chance to interview Sicart, who is adamant that “all of a sudden I found myself somewhere else, sitting in the back row of the stalls with no idea of how I got there or how it happened.” In this sense the novel act as an investigation, with the tensions of a crime novel. Marse teases us with various theories for example “that the whole case looked like a cover up.” In speaking to Sicart, he discovers that, after the murder, he suffered a mental breakdown:

“…the doctors put me through such an aggressive therapy that for quite a while I even forgot my own name.”

This, of course, suggests that Sicart’s recollections are unreliable. When Marse asks him, “Is what you’re going to tell me what you actually remember you did, or what the doctors said you had done?” he answers:

“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

Later he talks about “inventing monstrous stories” in order to get better treatment.

Sicart’s experience mirrors that of many anti-Franco political prisoners of the time, and the novel is also a commentary on Spain’s collective memory of that time. Set in 1982, the country is only beginning to leave behind years of dictatorship and is “torn between memory and forgetting.” At one point Marse comments to Sicart, “Nowadays a lot of people say the past should be left untouched,” and his difficulties in recreating the events of 1949 suggest the more general complexities of writing about the past. 1982, he says, was:

“…precisely the moment when the whole of Spain…seemed determined to convert the bruised collective memory into a dangerous minefield.”

Yet Marse remains clear that, however difficult it is to see clearly, the past continues to haunt the present:

“A distant, phantom, wintry but indestructible city that was as obsolete but as persistent in his mind as it was in mine.”

Alongside this more serious rumination on memory, the novel is also an amusing insight into the film industry. Initially Marse is told repeatedly to “stick to the facts” in his treatment but as financial backing is sought, and even the director changes, so does the emphasis. In particular, another prostitute whom Sicart mentions attracts the producer’s attention as she is losing her sight:

“You’ve struck gold there! A sightless sex worker!”

“The most important thing,” Marse is told, “is not the killer’s inability to remember, but the loveable little whore’s blindness.” Soon a young actress who is ‘perfect for the part’ is sent to meet Marse, and inevitably the final film bears little resemblance to the scripted scenes which Marse includes in the novel.

In the film’s failure, one suspects, lies the novel’s origin (though it is recent, originally published in 2016). This delay has perhaps been caused by Marse’s refusal to opt for easy fictional solutions. At one point it seems that we are being offered a psychological explanation for the murder based on Sicart’s insistence that his mother was a seamstress rather than a prostitute, but these ideas too are dismissed as “mere conjecture” and “too much psychodrama.” In the end Marse, and the reader, must accept that he is unable to solve the mystery:

“I wouldn’t be able to say what the limits of fiction are when it comes to recreating a historical truth; possibly the task is not to throw more light on the real event, but to emphasise the play of light and shade, the ambiguities and doubts…”

The Snares of Memory is certainly a play of light and shade, from its moments of light satire to the darker corners of Spain’s’ history. Spain, Marse concludes, like Sicart, perhaps like all of us, remains attached to a past it can never fully understand.

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4 Responses to “The Snares of Memory”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    I couldn’t help but think of some of the works of the Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez as I was reading your review, possibly on account of the combination of the personal and political stretching back into the past. The connection with film makes it seem all the more intriguing…

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    I’ve enjoyed the few books I have read by him I have this on my tbr

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