Javier Marías, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Penguin Modern Classics, 2012. Translated (brilliantly) from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. First published in Spanish, 1994; in English, 1996
Javier Marías is the novelist I’ve written about more than any other at this blog. I’ve argued in previous posts that he’s one of the most exciting and rewarding writers alive today. This novel is another I’d recommend highly.
As in every other novel of his that I’ve read, the plot is simple, and it’s impossible to say much about it without spoilers. Despite the labyrinthine, digressive style, with sentences that spool out over pages, loosely linked by subordinate ‘or else’ clauses, speculations and modalities (‘perhaps…’), there’s a powerful central mystery in the plot that keeps the reader turning the pages, but finding the satisfaction of (dis)closure increasingly deferred, elided or sleighted away into yet another fictive possibility.
It’s this cerebral, philosophical narrative discursiveness that’s what gives Tomorrow in the Battle the distinctive Marías tone. Also present are many of his usual tropes and motifs: old movies and actors; the plot involving a dead spouse, whose demise may or may not be ‘silently longed for’ (from Thus Bad Begins); this in turn leads to plot developments and doublings, involving trust and deception, betrayal and secrecy, surveillance and spying; a female figure named Luisa for the narrator to be infatuated by; the impossibility of truly ‘knowing’ anything; stories and storytelling.
Here’s the protagonist-narrator, Víctor (his name isn’t revealed until late on – a typical act of playful withholding by Marías), anticipating the telling of his extraordinary story of the unexpected death of a woman he was sexually involved with (the plot I withheld earlier) to his friend Ruibérriz – another of those louche and lewd, disreputable sidekick characters he’s so fond of; this indiscreet friend would have ‘proclaimed it [this story] to the four winds’, embroidering and distorting it to suit his whim and ego –
the world depends on its storytellers as it does on those who hear the story and occasionally influence it…
Just as our narrator lulls us into feeling how superior to his crass friend’s is Víctor’s sensibility, we’re told that he does tell that story to Ruibérriz at a racecourse, between races, in tones alternately ‘sinister and jocular’, interrupting his narrative now and then ‘to watch the final straights through our binoculars’, to go to the paddock, to the bar or to the place where they place their bets. This is classic Marías: meditating on abstract concepts, narratology and metaphysics then splicing the moral high seriousness with low humour and self-referential, bawdy wit. Shakespearean, perhaps.
As usual this moment leads to another riff developing on the initial theme:
Nothing is ever told twice in exactly the same way or using exactly the same words, not even if the storyteller is the same each time, even if it’s the same person.
This could be an account of the novelist’s technique in all his fiction. Plots, motifs and characters recur, are reworked. A ladder in a young woman’s tights leads to lascivious thoughts and sexual tension, as in Your Face Tomorrow (YFT); the Old English term ‘ge-bryd-guma’ is contemplated by a man who’s slept with a woman who has other sexual partners (YFT again), and so on. [Btw: the phrase ‘your face tomorrow’ is used several times, even though this novel was published several years before the first volume of that trilogy.]
As with music, a Marías novel’s slowly accreting development and iterations, cadences, echoes, resonances and recurring motifs are what’s consequential (this can be across books, too). People endlessly tell stories, and sooner or later, ‘everything is told’ (YFT again).
Incidents and observations of the moment in the plot lead to larger abstractions and universal considerations (‘we all do this’ is the type of reflection on one such moment). We are thus invited to comply with the attempts of the protagonist to make sense of or interpret the moments experienced, to find some epistemic ‘reality’ or certainty among the endlessly forestalled cues and clues life throws in his way.
The other key theme in Tomorrow in the Battle is another favourite of Marías’: memory and forgetting. He’s been criticised in the past for not castigating the Franco era of Spain’s recent history. I find that criticism strange, for the ‘pact of forgetting’ that Spain indulged as a means of erasing its memory of that shameful period is central to much of what he’s written. It is here, too, especially in the superb final pages, where the truth of what the bereaved spouse was up to while his wife was dying is finally, unbearably revealed (‘everything is forgotten or invalidated’, no matter how compelling the storyteller).
A final thought on the ‘male gaze’ in a Marías narrator’s repertoire. Almost any young woman Víctor encounters is seen and appraised with varying degrees of lechery – like the way he notices the ladder in that young woman’s tights; his imagination leads him higher – and I don’t mean metaphysics this time. That racecourse scene becomes highly farcical as Víctor and his friend flirt half-heartedly with two young women they assume to be on the prowl. They can’t be bothered in the end to consummate their plans: the betting takes precedence. But not before some brazen scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in an early Bond movie.
I quoted Margaret Drabble on this tendency in Marías in an early post on YFT; she’s alarmed by the ‘sexual tension’ that ‘verges on pornography’ in his fiction. I found Víctor’s casual lechery disturbing throughout. There’s a particularly sordid section where he picks up a sex worker in the street, thinking she’s his estranged wife, Celia (another recurring character type). He seems throughout this graphically detailed sexual sequence simultaneously to believe she is and isn’t Celia; either possibility excites him; neither does him much credit.
When he later breaks into her apartment and finds her naked and asleep in bed with her new partner, the creepiness is even more disturbing.
No doubt this is all part of the author’s intention: even his narrators are culpable, flawed and unreliable, in a universe that’s haunted by the ghosts or revenants of our own past history and that of our countrymen (the dead are ‘quite wrong to come back’, he wrote in The Infatuations, another novel of spousal hauntings).
A Marías protagonist’s occupation is always significant; here, Víctor is a ghostwriter, a man of shadows, (linguistic) deceptions and pretence, whose identity is evanescent. The recurring Shakespearean theme (there’s always one of those in a Marías novel: he’s a great admirer – and translator – of English lit) is the nightmares endured by guilty Richard III on the eve of his fateful battle at Bosworth Field, when the ghosts of those he’d murdered return to haunt and threaten him with the words of this novel’s title: ‘think on me’ tomorrow and despair.