Archive for the ‘Javier Marias’ Category

Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me

July 23, 2020

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. 

Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell

April 26, 2010

The publication of Your Face Tomorrow in three volumes seems, in retrospect, rather arbitrary; the seven sections, indicated by the sub-titles are more indicative of the structure. Each volume has contained one central act of violence and the third is no exception, the only difference being that, on this occasion, the violence is perpetrated by the central character and narrator, Jacques Deza. Deza (if you’re not acquainted with the previous volumes) is a Spaniard working in London for a “mysterious intelligence agency run by Bertram Tupra” (these were the words I was going to use, only to find them on the jacket…) that specialises in ‘reading’ people. The novel’s title (as with many of Marias’) comes from Shakespeare (Henry V), carrying with it connotations of betrayal, and of the difficulty of foreseeing what an individual will be like in the future. In this volume there is a strong sense that Deza himself has been unable to predict his own development.

Volume 2 ended with Tupra savagely attacking a man with a sword, threatening to kill him a number of times. This attack was witnessed by Deza and, at the beginning of this volume he is still discussing this with Tupra:

“I was sure that sooner or later he would ask me that question again: ‘Why can’t one do that? Why can’t one, according to you, go around beating people up and killing them?’ And I still had no answers that would convince him, I had to keep thinking about something we never think about because we take it as universally agreed, as immutable and normal and right.”

As throughout the series, the action is limited but the philosophising around the action is extensive. Marias writes in an extremely digressive style, reflected both in the lengthy conversations in the novel and in the first person narrative. Questions of morality abound, as when Deza sleeps with a young colleague shortly after she has asked him for a favour. Even the act itself is a form of deception:

“…she just let me, she didn’t participate, if one can say that or if that’s possible, at any rate, we didn’t speak, there was no indication on either side that what was happening was happening, how can I put it, we pretended to pretend to be asleep…”

The above extract (only a part of the sentence) gives a good indication of the style, the constant rephrasing in search of the most accurate expression of the idea.

The central incident in this volume, however, occurs when Deza returns home to Madrid to see his children and his wife, from whom he is separated. When he discovers that she is seeing someone else, and suspects that that person may have been violent towards her, he has to decide whether to take action or not. The implication is that his actions now may not be the same as before he met Tupra, particularly as he asks Tupra for advice:

“And you’re asking me what you should do? Or what is it you’re asking? What I would do in your place? Well, you know perfectly well by now, Jack, what I would do.”

Needless to say, a confrontation with the man in question occurs, and you might even argue that Deza changes in the course of that meeting:

“What face am I wearing now?…It’s the face of all those men and rather fewer women who have held someone else’s life in their hands and it could, from one moment to the next, come to resemble the face of those who chose to take that life.”

Marias, however, is not simply interested in the uses of fear and violence, but in the consequences. He does not end the novel with the aftermath of this event, but adds as a coda a wartime story from an old lecturer of Deza’s, Charles Wheeler. Wheeler tells him of his wife’s suicide, the result of a wartime betrayal she could not forgive herself for. His conclusion is that:

“…you can live with what has happened to you, with what you came here to talk to me about, because, unlike her, you find it hard to believe that you were responsible.”

In Marias’ work all moral concepts (in this case, guilt) become fluid – just as in war, a topic he frequently returns to throughout the sequence.

These three novels surely establish Marias as a major European writer. If you are at all interested in contemporary literature, you should make time for them.

Bad Nature, or Elvis in Mexico

March 13, 2010


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.