It's easy to feel that life leaves too many traces or too few, scarcely ever the right amount: either fingerprints everywhere or total erasure. In such a mood your memory itself becomes a double agent, and you may be ready, like the hero of Orson Welles's Mr Arkadin, to hire a private eye to explore your own past or, like the hero of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's The Club Dumas, to welcome the devil as your research assistant. You could also just read one of the formidably intelligent works of Javier Marías, expert in what he calls the 'shadows' of the untold story. He is the author of eight novels, the last three of which are available in English (from Harvill) as All Souls, A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. All three are admirably translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who not only catches the meanings of words with grace and precision, but gets rhythms of thought, and even better, rhythms of afterthought to carry over into English. Marías writes the kind of old-fashioned, speculative prose we associate with Proust and Henry James, all qualifications and revisions, no assertion that can't be infinitely embroidered or unravelled. But he also deals in violence, historical and personal, and in the movie titles, politicians, brand-names and underwear we connect with a quite different kind of writer. The King of Spain (identified only by various nicknames, Solus, the One and Only, Only You, the Lone Ranger and so on), appears in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, and Mrs Thatcher (recognisable from her lipstick, her manicure and the fact that she is called 'the British leader') in A Heart So White. In All Souls people die and are remembered, strange coincidences link the past to the present. In A Heart So White a remote and lurid suicide finds echoes in apparently unconnected lives. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me a man discovers he has a corpse in his arms and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a tellable story for this uncomfortable fact. All of these books are impressive, but the latest, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, probably offers the deepest immersion in Marías's haunted universe.
LRB 24 April 1997 | PDF Download