Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me

What plot there is in Javier Marias’ novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me (published in 1994 and translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 1996 and therefore eligible for the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of that year) is largely at the beginning and the end, and even then it is as much about what doesn’t happen as what does. The novel opens with our narrator, Victor, in bed with another man’s wife. The woman in question, however is dead, as we discover from the first sentence, which, typically, is posed as an abstract thought rather than a moment of panic:

“No one ever expects that they might someday find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again but whose name they will remember.”

Before they can make love, Marta feels unwell (“I feel absolutely deathly,” she says) and can only lie on the bed half-undressed hoping her indisposition passes quickly. Even as it becomes clear that her condition is worsening, Victor does nothing but hold her:

“I obeyed, I waited, I did nothing and I phoned no one, I just returned to my place on the bed, which was not really my place, though it was mine that night, I lay down by her side again…”

Once he realises Marta is dead he must again decide whether to act, getting as far as phoning the hotel in London where her husband, Dean, is staying only to find that they have no guest of that name. Eventually he leaves, aware that Marta’s two-year-old son will wake the next day to find his mother dead, but reassured “this child will not recognise me if he sees me again in the distant future.” He leaves with the father’s contact details, the tape from the answering machine, and Marta’s bra, heedlessly stuffed in his pocket earlier, for all the world like a killer.

From this point, the novel largely tells of Victor’s attempts to ingratiate himself with Marta’s family, like a creepy stalker in an eighties thriller. Firstly, an appearance at her funeral, but later through using a contact to gain an opportunity to work with her father, Tellez, as a speechwriter for the king. (It’s no surprise that Victor is a ghost writer in a story full of ghosts, as well as a scriptwriter for television shows which don’t get made). This entails Victor’s presence at a family dinner with Tellez, Dean and Marta’s sister, Luisa, where Marta’s death and the custody of her son is discussed, with Tellez commenting bitterly to Marta’s husband:

“I’m not so unreasonable to blame you for not having saved her when no salvation was possible, I blame you for the fact that Marta died alone.”

Though Dean may suspect, even know, that Marta was not alone, he is unable to tell her father. Meanwhile Victor sits silently, like the ghost at the feast. Inexorably, the novel moves towards the point where Victor will tell Dean about the night his wife died and Dean, in turn, will tell Victor a secret of his own.

Of course, with Marias, the journey is more important than the destination, with long, meandering sentences that wind their way through two or three ideas before reaching their full stop. Marias reveals one of his main concerns, the border land between thought and memory, at the end of the first chapter:

“’Tomorrow on the battle think on me,’ I thought or, rather, remembered.”

he quotation, which forms the novel’s title, is from the final act of Richard III on the night before the Battel of Bosworth Field, when Richard is haunted by the ghosts of those he has killed wishing defeat on him. It is, in part, a dream of guilt, the guilt that Victor perhaps feels on abandoning Marta, but it also is both a memory (of his victims) and a thought (that is, they have not actually said those words to him). In the novel this difficulty in distinguishing between memory and thought extends to an uncertainty regarding how well we know others. When Victor visits the palace, the King – who already has to speak the words others write for him – complains about how little known he is for all that he is “under the microscope”:

“…despite all this vigilance and study, they still don’t really know me, my personality is still as vague as ever…”

Victor, meanwhile, is there under the name of his friend, Ruiberriz, through whom he gained the commission (there is a scene later featuring both of them at the race track where Ruiberriz has to assume Victor’s name in turn). This preoccupation goes some way to explaining a long scene in which Victor picks up a prostitute convinced that she is his ex-wife (while giving her another assumed name, Javier):

“…she still looked too much like Celia for me to feel distrustful or to decide that it wasn’t her. Anyway, it was her, even if it wasn’t.”

These confusions within the narrative destabilise identity and force the reader to question how they ‘know’ people, a mixture of memory and thought. We realise not only how reliant we are on the narrator of this story, but on the narrator of our own.

Javier Marias was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 for the second part of the Your Face Tomorrow (a phrase that crops up here) trilogy and long-listed in 2010 for part three. As a major European novelist it is could be regarded as strange that he has never won it, but perhaps that is because this would have been the year. 

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17 Responses to “Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It does seem odd he hasn’t won the IFFP, because I know how highly he’s regarded, and I’m still puzzled about what I didn’t get in with his work. I can’t put my finger on it, unless there was anything in his attitude to women that made me uncomfortable…

    • 1streading Says:

      His characters can seem old fashioned in their attitudes to women so perhaps that is what you have picked up on. He also has a very particular style which will not appeal to everyone.

  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    King Xavier suffers from the anti-monarchist bias of the prize committees.

    I need to fill in the early Marías I’ve missed. This sounds good.

  3. Richard Says:

    One of my favorites among the early Marías novels. I slightly prefer this to A Heart So White, to which it bears some similarities, but most of my blogger friends seem to feel that it’s the other way around. Have you read that one? Have a preference?

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    A very enticing review, Grant. This sounds like vintage Marias. Long, meandering sentences, themes of memory, identity and mortality. Like Richard, I couldn’t help but be reminded of A Heart So White as I was reading your review – a comparison that makes it seem all the more appealing!

  5. Tredynas Days Says:

    I just checked my post on this from last year: you capture very well the texture and subtlety of JM’s narrative voice, and his themes – these recur throughout his fiction, but despite the similarities, each novel is distinctive. I think Jacqui has a point about the attitude to women, which is perhaps a little unreconstructed at times – I like to think this is more to do with the narrators than the author, but it’s probably not the case. There’s a lot of ‘male gaze’ going on. But I find the richness of the whole just about compensates.

  6. Tony Says:

    Loved this, need to buy myself a copy for rereads 🙂

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it was a pleasure to read it again. Not sure how the fact I’m reading some books for the first time and others for the second, or even third, will affect my ability to compare them.

      • Tony Says:

        Well, I’m hoping to try the trilogy again at some point, so I wonder how they’ll stand up. My first was ‘A Heart So White’, and I think it was one of his best, but again, it’s been a good while…

  7. Bellezza Says:

    Love Marías. Caught my breath at this line of yours: “We realise not only how reliant we are on the narrator of this story, but on the narrator of our own.” I will be thinking about that for a long time…what are the stories we tell ourselves? On what shelf do they belong?

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