While a fair bit of the Spanish-language literature I’ve read has been dense, weighty and ‘important’, there has been the occasional book with its tongue a little more in its cheek. Eduardo Mendoza’s Spanish-Civil-War romp An Englishman in Madrid certainly falls into that category, and today’s choice is another slightly lighter affair, even if the subject matter might not suggest that. There’s also another connection between the two books. You see, they were translated by the same person, so it seems that he enjoys playful works, too 😉
In Juan Marsé’s The Snares of Memory (translated by Nick Caistor, courtesy of MacLehose Press), it’s 1982, shortly after the end of the Franco era, and a well-known writer (an alter-ego of Marsé himself) has been asked to work up a story that will later be made into the script of a movie. The topic is the 1949 murder of a prostitute, Carolina Bruil Latorre, and the producer and director have commissioned the writer with finding out exactly what happened on the fateful day so that they can make a faithful work of art. But how is he to get these details? Why, by asking the murderer of course…
Fermín Sicart Nelo was a young man at the time of the crime, and having spent his time in prison, he’s more than happy to come and talk to the writer, particularly given the 6,000 pesetas a week he’s promised for the daily afternoon conversations. However, despite his willingness to talk, the task of unveiling the truth won’t be quite as easy as you might expect. After his arrest, Sicart Nelo was taken away to a facility where doctors experimented on him, leading to his having a rather limited recall of events after the murder. He remembers full well how and when he killed Bruil Latorre – he just has no idea why.
The book’s premise is perhaps a little gruesome, and some readers may not appreciate the woman’s death being used as the basis of the work. However, at its core, The Snares of Memory is less the story of a murder than a series of conversations between two men that uncover the secrets of memory, both its reliability and fallibility. Over a number of afternoons, the writer slowly jogs the older man’s memory, trying not to rush, waiting for the moment when everything will click into place, realising all the while that after the passing of so much time, the chances of coming up with what really happened are slim indeed.
The details of the murder itself appear fairly straight-forward. Fermín worked as a projectionist at a small cinema, and Carolina was making one of her frequent visits to the small room he worked in. Each conversation adds details to this picture: the rain outside, the issues with the film being shown and Carolina’s strange mood. As she walks towards the projectionist, semi-naked, with some discarded celluloid film looped around her neck, we see her getting ever closer to her death.
The Snares of Memory isn’t really that kind of book, though, and Marsé works several different layers into his story. Perhaps the key to the story is the era in which the murder takes place, with the fascists now firmly in control. Carolina’s tangled personal life sees her in a relationship with the Falangist official Ramón Mir Altamirano, and when we learn that Fermín’s colleague, an older projectionist, is involved in socialist activities, the whole affair becomes more puzzling. The writer suspects that there’s something very strange about the murder, even if it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find out what it is.
Another aspect of the novel is the author’s concern with the art of writing. Quite apart from his humourous forty-eight answers (to unwritten questions) that start the book (“There is no psychopath or murderer to uncover or arrest. The murderer, c’est moi!”), there are constant musings on what he’s actually doing in writing the novel:
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, anything that contributes to the liveliest expression of the truth.
p.207 (MacLehose Press, 2019)
Marsé has this interest in common with several other Spanish writers (c.f. Javier Cercas’ The Impostor or Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Like a Fading Shadow) who seem to enjoy delving into the past. The result is a special blend of fact and fiction, with the writers appearing as characters in their own work, and that manifests itself here in interviews and phone conversations, as well as the intrusion of scenes the writer scribbles down for the film.
Where The Snares of Memory is a little different from the works cited above is in its lighter tone. Much of the book rests on the amusing interchanges between Fermín, the writer and his housekeeper Felisa, who bosses her employer around and frankly scares his timid visitor. There are also the farcical developments of the film itself to consider. With funding issues leading to changes of personnel behind the camera, what was meant to be a solemn documentary ends up turning into a soft-porn melodrama, a movie focusing on another prostitute who wasn’t involved in the murder at all.
It all makes for an enjoyable read that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and Caistor’s work is as impressive and readable as ever (I wonder if he’ll take it as praise or mockery when I say he catches the tone of conversations between a group of ageing people nicely…). Marsé pokes fun at himself in the form of the irascible writer, doing as he wishes provided his housekeeper agrees, and the bewildered murderer, who’s never quite sure that the whole affair isn’t just a joke someone’s playing on him, is a wonderful creation.
Yet what saves it from being too light is the focus on memory, and how it can (and does) deceive us:
As I listened to him recall those fateful days I discovered that, in a somnambulist memory such as his, reconstructed under such suspicious and dire circumstances, the inconsistencies, lapses and tricks could be just as interesting as the truth. (p.95)
The setting of 1982 is key here, a time when the writer’s country was set the task of looking back into the past and attempting to reevaluate recent history. As Fermín himself gradually realises, much of what we remember is not what actually happened. In the end, though, despite our best efforts, it’s unclear what, if anything, we’ve actually found out. The moral of the story seems to be that detailing the truth of past events is a near impossible task…