As it’s all too easy for me to get caught up in review copies, I occasionally try to make space in my schedule for good books I’ve been wanting to read for some time, and after a recent read of Javier Marías’ All Souls, I thought about which of the Spanish writer’s books I should try next. In the subsequent Twitter discussion, New Directions’ Tom Roberge made the suggestion of his favourite Marías book, and (despite the piles of ARCs waiting for me) I decided that I might just try that one myself.
You probably won’t be too surprised to hear that it’s very good indeed…
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) takes us into a Madrid apartment where the narrator, Víctor, is anticipating a night of love with Marta, an attractive married woman. With her husband away in London, and her infant son finally in bed, the night can begin – except that Marta falls suddenly ill and dies in bed in Víctor’s arms. Faced with a difficult situation and a number of possible actions, he chooses one which probably wouldn’t have occurred to most readers; after leaving a plate of food on the table in case the son wakes up and gets hungry, the visitor leaves…
While Víctor may have run away, he’s unable to forget what has happened, the sudden death preventing him from moving on with his life:
“Everything was in suspense but I didn’t know until when, or what had to happen before life could start again; I wanted to know, and I wanted to know soon, if they had found the body and if the child was safe, that was all, in theory, I felt no curiosity beyond that, then. And yet I foresaw that once I had found that out, I would still not be able to get back to my daily life and activities, as if the link established between Marta Téllez and myself would never break, or might take a while to do so.”
p.66 (Vintage International, 2012)
Very soon, work and inclination draw him back into Marta’s family circle, and it’s not long before he comes face to face with Marta’s unsuspecting widower, Eduardo Deán. It’s giving little away to reveal that the two men will eventually meet to discuss what happened, in the process revealing the full truth about the fateful evening.
If this sounds like the set-up for a suspense novel, it is in many ways, but this is Marías at his best, and if Tomorrow in the Battle… is a thriller, it’s certainly one of the less orthodox variety. Aided (and abetted) by the always magnificent Jull Costa, Marías takes a simple, yet intriguing premise and pulls it in all directions, using his command of the language to explore the story. Over the course of three-hundred pages, he examines the idea of memory and the effect of death on the people around them, as well as how those left behind remember the one who has passed on.
Despite the initial scenes (and the reader’s Anglo-Saxon horror at Víctor’s departure), the story has little to do with Marta, who is merely a starting point for a wider story. The crux of the novel is a question which crops up repeatedly in slightly different forms: how is it possible for life to go on when people are unaware of a loved one’s death? The writer is fascinated by the idea of time spent living under false impressions, examining how those unaware of events act differently through their lack of knowledge, behaving in a way they would never have dared if they had been in possession of the full facts. When the truth is finally revealed, the period of ignorance is shown in a harsh, unforgiving light, leaving the survivors even more bereft than they could have thought.
There’s also a constant focus on our (misguided) view of the past as an inevitable move towards the present, the vivid reality of now affecting how we regard what led up to it:
“Or perhaps it is the by-paths and the indirect crooked ways of our own efforts that change us and we end up believing that it is fate, we end up seeing our life in the light of the latest or most recent event, as if the past had been only a preparation and that we understood it only as it moved away from us, as if we understood it all completely at the end.” (p.194)
What follows from this is an ability to reinvent the past, to see it in a different light the further we move along in time. When we combine this idea with the false security discussed above, the period when life continues unaware of a life-changing event, we can see just how damaging that path along a false time-line can be.
The story, both the current events and an important backstory, are narrated by Víctor himself, a rather dubious character whose interpretation we must reluctantly take on board. Given his actions at the time of Marta’s death, and the way in which he handles himself subsequently (including a quite obvious attempt to move on to Marta’s sister…), he’s not a man the average reader will be able to trust fully. In a way, Marías goes out of his way to make Víctor unsympathetic, deliberately pushing the reader into doubting his side of the story, even if his is the only version we’re likely to get (until the very end, that is).
What makes Tomorrow in the Battle… so good, though, is that the story is merely the vehicle for the writer to showcase his craft and his ability to construct a tightly woven novel. As in A Heart So White, there’s an almost musical obsession with themes and motifs, and with recurring phrases, and images, repeated so often the reader knows they must be of importance. Each time they appear, there’s a greater depth of meaning, and slowly, oh so slowly, things glide into place, all becoming clear by the end of the novel. Marías, in a way, is actually teasing his readers, using his literary allusions and recurring phrases to hint at the truth while never quite revealing it.
Marías loves to borrow ideas from Shakespeare, and the title here comes from Richard III, from a scene where ghosts visit the doomed King before the Battle of Bosworth. Ghosts are an important theme of the novel too, with Víctor making much of his living as a ghost-writer (in typical Marías fashion, even this idea is complicated further, with Víctor becoming the ghost-writer of a ghost-writer…). This idea of the silent, shadowy Víctor extends into real life, where the writer paints him as an unwelcome presence in several places, including his superfluous attendance at a family lunch, his anonymous presence at Marta’s funeral and the discovery that on the fateful night of her death he was only a replacement lover.
However, Víctor’s not the only ghost in the novel. The Shakespeare quote actually comes from Richard’s late wife, condemning the King to death in battle, and Víctor too is haunted by voices from the past. Memories of Marta continue to assault him, and a large part of the novel looks at an event from the past, an assignation with a woman who may, or may not, have been his ex-wife (as confusing as that sounds). Then there’s another voice from the past, one he’s unable to place – a voice on the answer phone tape he took from Marta’s apartment on the night of her death…
Many readers will appreciate the story, but Tomorrow in the Battle… also works because of the superb writing. Long, complex sentences rush you along, yet the pace of events is incredibly slow, allowing the reader to turn everything over in their mind. With the themes and language repeated, assuming a greater stature in the reader’s mind each time they’re encountered, Marías’ assured creation moves to a stunning crescendo. We know it’s coming, we know it’s all planned – we’re just never quite sure what it is until the very end.
A superb novel, Tomorrow in the Battle… is more proof that Marías is a writer who can be considered a genuine chance of being named when Nobel Prize time comes around again. For me, it’s also a timely reminder not to get *too* caught up in the new and the shiny. Yes, it’s nice to get free books and be in on the latest conversations; however, if you focus overly on the present, you’ll miss the joy of looking back. There’s certainly something to be said for revisiting the literary ghosts of the past 🙂