Posts Tagged ‘like a fading shadow’

Like a Fading Shadow

April 1, 2018

Like a Fading Shadow is the seventh of Antonio Munoz Molina’s novels to be translated into English (by Camilo A Ramirez) but it would be fair to say he remains largely unknown in both the UK and the US. Those previous novels suggest a writer fascinated by history, and Like a Fading Shadow is no exception, a novel set in three different time periods in the city of Lisbon. In one Molina recreates the ten days spent there by James Earl Ray in the aftermath of his assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968; in the second he recounts visiting the city in 1987 when he was writing the novel which became Winter in Lisbon; and, thirdly, there is a contemporary section covering his research for the novel we are reading.

Molina begins the novel by saying, “I awake inside his mind,” and he certainly inhabits Ray’s thoughts convincingly, his presentation of a character who rarely communicates taking place largely within his head; a taciturn man, we suspect, even before he finds himself isolated in a country whose language he does not speak. Self-educated and understandably paranoid, Ray is the sum of his influences, a patchwork of knowledge much of which reads like a self-help book for spies:

“Autohypnosis can give you complete control over bodily functions… Your face will be forgotten faster if they never see your eyes… With a lot of training it was possible to develop telepathic powers to anticipate an attack seconds before it happens…”

Ray is a parody James Bond, a character (does he think of him as a ‘character’?) he idolises who frequently crops up in his inner monologue:

“He carried the revolver in his back pocket. James Bond kept his Berretta in a holster made of antelope skin.”

His assimilation of facts (including numerous capital cities) seem focussed in his own mind, but is random in relation to understanding the world. This originates not in his rejection of traditional education but in education’s rejection of him:

“The teacher did not hide her repulsion for him and used to laugh at him in front of the others. He would go to school barefoot or wearing his father’s old boots, several sizes too big, and the old man’s coat with the sleeves rolled up. Before he could enter the schoolhouse, the teacher inspected his head for lice.”

Similarly, he identifies himself as ‘under-cover’ to differentiate himself from his own past:

“He hides in the human waste of the slums but he is not one of them.”

Clearly there is a novel to be written of Ray’s life, and Molina reaches beyond his time in Lisbon into both his past and future. However, perhaps because Ray’s character, once defined, does not develop, and also, as an archetypal loner, he lacks relationships, he ties Ray’s story to his own life. What seems to link Ray’s time in Lisbon with his own in 1987 is a sense of losing oneself and being lost:

“Beneath the calm surface of my daily routine was a juxtaposition of fragmented lives without rhyme or reason, unfulfilled desires, scattered pieces which did not fit together.”

Molina describes a Jekyll and Hyde existence where he is both a family man working in an office and, when allowed any freedom (as in Lisbon), a party animal whose nights are filled with Bacchanalian excess. As one of acquaintances comments:

“You are under-cover all right, but I can’t tell if you are infiltrating the underworld or City Hall.”

His trip to Lisbon is ostensibly to work on his novel but he wonders if “maybe I just wanted to escape for a few days and literature was my excuse.” Despite Molina’s attempts to yoke the two narratives together, however, (“I was leaving like a spy who has accomplished his mission”) they remain very different, though in both we see the tension between the identities society imposes on us and those we create for ourselves.

I found Ray’s story fascinating, though largely in a ‘true crime’ kind of way; Molina’s confessions are less interesting as they feel far from unique, and drifts as the novel progresses. A story of meeting Juan Carlos Onetti is more a curio than an insight. More generally, the novel runs out of steam before the end, and a final section written from the point of view of King arrives too late restart the engines. Above all, though, it is Molina’s failure to make the parts of the novel a greater whole which leads me to suspect this will not feature on the Man Booker International shortlist.