Archive for the ‘Juan Marse’ Category

The Snares of Memory

February 10, 2020

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.

The Calligraphy of Dreams

January 14, 2015

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Victoria Mir runs from her house in obvious distress, pauses for a moment, and then lies on the road, her head ostentatiously across the tramlines. Her suicidal impulse seems less serious when we discover that the tram no longer runs along this particular street, but the emotional trauma that has led her here is undeniable, an early indication of the fine line between comedy and tragedy that this novel will journey along. One observer among the curious crowd which gathers to witness Mir’s behaviour is fifteen year old Ringo, the protagonist of Juan Marse’s The Calligraphy of Dreams. In the disconnect between Mir’s desperate actions and their less than desperate repercussions, Ringo senses something:

“Possibly this is the very first time that the boy intuits, in however vague and fleeting a manner, that what is invented can carry more weight and truthfulness than what is real, more life of its own, be more meaningful, and consequently have more chance of triumphing over oblivion.”

The reasons for Mir’s actions remain the novel’s central mystery; Ringo’s interpretation of them a signpost on his journey to manhood in a coming-of-age novel which contains echoes of Marse’s own life. (In both cases they are adopted after their mother dies).

Another obvious similarity is that they are dreamers with a powerful imagination. A teacher comments on his “rich interior life” and we find him regaling his friends with stories of cowboys and Indians. Imagination comes first (“I can have a beach wherever I want one”) and he doesn’t like it when reality, in the form of needing a sea to have a beach, intrudes:

“Ringo feels as though reality has burst into his world like a shockwave after an explosion…and has torn something form his hands.”

Later, when he loses a finger at the jeweller’s where he works, it his dreaming that is to blame;

“…he was caught daydreaming at the electric rolling mill, trying to hum the first notes of a simple tune he could not remember properly, when in a flash the machine swallowed his index finger.”

Ringo’s daydreaming nature is also shown through his innocence. His father is a rat catcher and Ringo is particularly fascinated by the blue rats he mentions: “He often hears him curse and blaspheme against the terrible, disgusting plague of blue rodents infesting the city.” This reference, however, is not to rats but to the Nationalists who have recently won the Spanish Civil War (this is made clear later when one such is referred to as a “blue dummy”). His father’s political activism explains his frequent disappearances, and also why in one scene he has to burn his books, telling his son it is “just in case, because of the flies.”

Ringo’s seemingly harmless nature becomes dangerous when it intersects with Mir’s love life. Ever since her time on the tramlines, she has been awaiting a letter from the man she says she threw out of her house that day. Ringo is aware of this as, after he loses his finger, he spends a lot of time in a nearby bar where the letter is to be delivered. He becomes directly involved when he meets the man one night and promises to deliver the letter for him, only to become so drunk he loses it. His attempts to reconstruct the letter (hence the calligraphy of the title) display the gap between his imagination and reality.

This is only one aspect of the way the novel shows Ringo entering the adult world, a world still shaken by the Civil War, the repercussions of which require an extra layer of secrets to be decoded. Strangely, Marse chooses not to tell the story chronologically, with episodes from Ringo’s childhood interrupting the main plotline. While Marse’s portrayal of Ringo is sympathetic, he also shows him to be detached from the urgency of the post-war period, as if representing a generation who had not fought in the war, but, having seen their parents dreams shattered, were now retreating from reality to write dreams of their own. In Ringo’s experience, we see the disillusionment of a country.