VENDELA VIDA

DOES JAVIER MARíAS
HAVE A LEG FETISH?

OR IS HE JUST AMERICA’S GREATEST CONTEMPORARY SPANISH NOVELIST?

DISCUSSED: Literary Ambassadors, Sebald, Before Night Falls, College Literature Classes, Bohumil Hrabal, Fulfilling International Quotas, Borges & Cortazar, The Island-Kingdom of Redonda, Prostitutes & Identity, Women with Nice Legs, Women Dying on Page One, Eavesdropping, Thinly Veiled Autobiography, the Prado, Flirty Translators, Anonymous Hotel Rooms, Bullfighting, The Velvet Revolution, Literary Tourism

BUT WHO FROM SPAIN?

Every so often a foreign-born and foreign-living literary writer is heralded and crowned by Americans as our literary ambassador, our tour guide to a particular country and its history. Improbably, these writers even become trendy, in their own effete way. Take the German-born writer W. G. Sebald, for example, and his novels about German immigrants and the ghostly, lingering effects of World War II. His fame was posthumous-seeming long before his death in December of 2001, in a car accident. Oftentimes the transformation of an unknown foreign writer into a “well-known” writer (rarely, if ever, a bestseller) occurs because one of his or her books has been made into a popular movie. Such was not the case with Sebald, but it was the case with Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, and Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls. (I, for one, had never heard of Arenas, and was thankful to have been turned onto his work through Schnabel’s film.) A foreign writer’s future ambassadorship might also start at the level of the university syllabus. In addition to reading Duras both in French and literature college classes, my classmates and I read and reread Kundera. We presumed he was the single Czech writer worth reading—and why shouldn’t we have? If something is worth importing to the States (a Czech writer, a German car, a Japanese television) we import it, don’t we? We assumed, wrongly, that we were reading the best, the only worthwhile example of Czech literature; yet we were never assigned, for example, Bohumil Hrabal, author of I Served the King of England and a precise, very funny writer worthy of as much attention as Kundera. Regardless of the origin of these writers’ popularity—films, or university fashionableness (a recent student at a well-known graduate writing program complained that he’d been assigned Sebald in every one of his classes), or the Nobel prizes (we do turn to the Swedes for cues), or the Booker prizes (since the Booker committee went on its former-colony kick)—these periodic embracings of foreign writers help us believe that our culture isn’t as us-centric, or U.S.-centric, as it is.

But curiously (sadly, depressingly), when one foreign writer’s work is cinematized and celebrated, our cultural interest in the works of his or her countrymen is contained rather than inspired; there’s no rush on Cuban writers after Arenas’s rise to moderate reknown, and why should there be? We have our long-suffering, formerly imprisoned Cuban writer. The successful translation and publication of one Cuban (or Filipino or Bangladeshi) does not mean the floodgates have finally opened, and Cuban/Filipino/Bangladeshi writers will now have an easier time getting translated and published in the States. And so, as though fulfilling a quota, or choosing from a prix fixe menu in which we’re asked to pick one sampling from each category (“And for our Venezuelan, we’ll have…”), the current American reader ends up with an accessible survey of contemporary international literature that feels consummate and might look something like this:

  • Australia: Peter Carey (two time Booker Prize winner)
  • Austria: Thomas Bernhard
  • Brazil: Jorge Amado
  • Colombia: Gabriel García Márquez
  • Cuba: Reinaldo Arenas
  • Czech Republic: Milan Kundera
  • France: Albert Camus (Nobel Prize winner) and Marguerite Duras (soon to be usurped by Michel Houellebecq)
  • Germany: Günter Grass (Nobel Prize winner) and, more recently, Sebald
  • Hungary: Imre Kertesz (Nobel Prize winner)
  • Iceland: Halldór Laxness (Nobel Prize winner)
  • Italy: Alberto Moravia (his status was buttressed by the Godard film based on his book Contempt), Italo Calvino (Nobel Prize winner) and, more recently, Umberto Eco
  • Japan: Haruki Murakami; Kazuo Ishiguro (British citizen, like Sebald, but writes about his land of family origin)
  • Mexico: Laura Esquivel (the film version of Like Water for Chocolate made her popular here)
  • Nigeria: Ben Okri (Booker Prize winner)
  • Poland: Wislawa Szymborska (Nobel Prize winner)
  • Portugal: José Saramago (Nobel Prize winner)
  • South Africa: J.M. Coetzee (two time Booker Prize winner); Nadine Gordimer (Nobel Prize winner)
  • Trinidad: V.S. Naipaul (Nobel Prize winner)

Fine, then. But who’s our Spanish writer representative? While well-read Americans are quick to cite their passion for Borges and Cortazar (Spanish-speaking, but both of them Argentinian, not Spanish), many are hard-pressed to name a single Spanish writer more contemporary than, well, Cervantes, who died in 1616. So who, then, from Spain?

I give my vote to Javier Marías.

I hadn’t heard of Javier Marías until the spring of 2001, when I was in Italy, having dinner with two Germans, an Italian, and an Irishman (no, this is not the set-up to a joke). My fellow dining companions were talking about Javier Marías, and laughing about a scene in his novel A Heart So White involving translators, politicians, and a woman’s legs. “You’ve never heard of him?” they said. They couldn’t believe it. They toyed with various explanations for my ignorance. Maybe his books had been translated differently in America? Maybe his masterpiece was called White Heart or Uncolored Heart or His White Heart? Had I heard of any books with those titles? My answer was an American, “Um, no.”

When I returned home, I began to investigate Marías, who was beloved by readers from various countries, and yet seemingly unknown to Americans. (Not to mention that I’d heard he was, intriguingly, the king of a small island called Redonda in the Antilles) This is what I discovered: Born in 1951, Marías has published twenty-three books that have been translated into twenty-nine languages and sold more than three and one-half million copies. He’s been awarded such prizes as the Premio Ciudad de Barcelona, the Dublin International IMPAC Award, the Spanish Critics’ Award, the Premio Mondellao, the Prix Femina Etranger, and the Prix L’Oeil et la Lettre, to name a few. In Germany, his novel A Heart So White was a bestseller.

I began to read his novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (published in Spain in 1994, and in America in 2001) and was so captivated by the plot that I skipped the chapter-long tangent in which the narrator encounters a prostitute who resembles his wife, finished the book, read the tangent for the first time, and then read the tangent again. I was unprepared, you see, for the tangent. I made the same mistake with the next Marías book I read, A Heart So White (2002): I skipped over the seventy-five–page interlude in which the narrator helps an ex-girlfriend in New York romance a man via video dating. To my untrained-in-the-skills-of-Marías eye, the tangents initially appeared to be mistakes a lazy editor had let slide; Marías’s chapter(s)-long asides, however, turn out to be the most rich and—although plot-irrelevant—theme-enhancing elements of his works. Not a month had passed before I was ordering the rest of his books that had been translated (although I haven’t read the Spanish editions, the English translations—most by Margaret Jull Costa—are incredibly fluid) and, in the past few years, faithfully published in America by New Directions Press. These included All Souls (2000), Dark Back of Time (2001), and a collection of stories entitled When I Was Mortal (2002).

When I’d finished reading, I looked up the latitude (16° 65'N) and longitude (62° 21'W) of the island-kingdom of Redonda. I discovered that he inherited the title “Xavier I, King of Redonda,” and that he was the fourth in a line of writers to be king of this small island since 1880. I counted how many women in his books were named Luisa (four) and how many were named Berta (two) and tried to figure out if all the Luisas and Bertas were related, if they were intended to be the same woman (they’re not). I called New Directions and asked a friendly woman when his next novel would be coming out. She told me The Man of Feeling, which was published in Spain in 1986, would be published here in the summer of 2003. I read it in one sitting. Reading The Man of Feeling, which is a slender and accessible book, prompted me to reread Marías’s previous works with a new appreciation—and a newfound ability to dissect, or at least make a list of some of, his primary themes and preoccupations. That list:

  1. Women’s legs
  2. The untimely deaths of young women
  3. Prostitutes
  4. Dishonesty
  5. Translation and the inadequacy of language
  6. Memory
  7. Anticipation

BUT WHOM IS HE LIKE?

Marías’s wordplay and use of humor is Nabokovian, his perambulatory walks and thoughts are reminiscent of Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, his interweaving of works of literature and philosophy into the narrative are like Kundera’s, his plots often Lynchian, his literary games Borgesian, and his unexpected twists positively Jamesian. Like Sebald’s, Marías’s novels exhibit an obsession with history and memory. Also like Sebald’s books, some of Marías’s earlier novels, such as All Souls and Dark Back of Time incorporate photographs that tease the reader into questioning: Is this or is this not a novel? (Fact: Sebald and Marías admired each other’s work, and they seem to have descended from the same forefathers of fiction, e.g., Nabokov and Musil.) But Marías doesn’t come close to having the same recognition and esteem that W.G. Sebald deserved and enjoyed. During an email exchange I had with the writer Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review and an advocate of Marías’s work, she posited some astute theories as to why:

One issue is that all of Sebald’s fiction was translated into English pretty soon after he wrote it (except for the earliest, Vertigo, which came later)—he lived in England, after all, and taught at U.E.A. Norwich. Marías, on the other hand, is only starting to be regularly published here, and many of his novels still remain untranslated. But more than that, his novels concern themselves with human passions, and particularly sexual passions (jealousy, betrayal, murderousness, etc.), in a way that Sebald’s never did. It is much harder for critics to embrace serious novels that have subjects like these (as opposed to the Holocaust and its after-effects, which always signal “serious”), because the same elements are treated in much lower-level novels, and lots of critics have trouble telling the difference. Also, the interiority of Marías’s characters is very different from that of Sebald’s. It’s true that both are rendered to us in long, sinuous sentences, but there is an intimacy, a real dailiness and relation to the modern world (OUR modern world) in Marías’s interior monologues that I found absent, for good or ill, in Sebald’s. Just one comparison: Television and movies come up a lot in Marías, never in Sebald. Again, this disguises Marías and makes him less likely to be viewed as completely “high art,” though it shouldn’t.

So I nominate Marías as literary ambassador from Spain, knowing that he’s a tough candidate to push for because there’s no official ballot, there are no films of his work, and his themes can, as Lesser says, seem very much not the stuff of serious literary endeavors. (An aside: Lesser made these what-now-seem-prescient observations before a recent review of The Man of Feeling ran in The New York Times Book Review; the review was very positive, but the reviewer mentioned that a plot synopsis of the book sounded like “banal melodrama.”)

Marías does what most writers who mine the territory of “banal melodrama” do not: He takes an encounter with a prostitute (for example) and turns it into a philosophical discussion about the nature of identity; he describes the death of a woman the narrator barely knows and seizes it as an opportunity to show how memory can impede and assist us; he creates a scene in which a man and a woman are translating the words of two politicians and turns it into one of the funniest, sexiest scenes in contemporary literature—while at the same time pointing out the malleability of language and the ability to translate and mold it to obtain one’s goal. In this case, the goal is the seduction of the narrator’s future wife, Luisa.

If this is truly going to be a pitch for Javier Marías and an exploration of his themes as well as his intellectualism of common emotions and not-so-common events, we should begin by examining what Marías likes to examine: women.

WOMEN’S LEGS AND WOMEN’S DEATHS

The women of Javier Marías’s novels are all mysterious, intelligent, alluring, and sensual, with legs, feet, and shoes that are described in great detail and faces that are described barely at all. (Guaranteed: Reading Marías will give you a new appreciation for the various crossings and uncrossings of women’s legs, the quality of their shoes, the runs in their stockings, and the slits in their skirts.)

The women of Marías’s novels are also often dead. They kill themselves right after their honeymoons because of a secret their husband has revealed on the trip; they die of a sudden illness in the arms of the man with whom they were about to consummate an affair; they slip down the stairs while carrying an ex-boyfriend’s books to the trash; they stand on bridges with their lovers and jump to their deaths while their children watch from afar. They almost always die young.

In two of his best works, his masterpiece A Heart So White (originally published in Spain in 1992) and his novel Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the deaths of young women take place as early as the first sentence. Take, for example, the beginning of A Heart So White:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with the other members of the family and three guests.

Or another beginning, from Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me:

No one ever expects that they might one day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember.

Everything that follows in the novels—every action, all the narrators’ thoughts—are set in motion by these deaths.

Brief plot synopses of each of these novels:

The young woman who shoots herself after her honeymoon in A Heart So White is the second wife of the narrator’s father. She kills herself after her husband discloses the cause of his first wife’s death. The father gets married for the third time, this time to the dead girl’s sister, who later gives birth to Juan, the narrator. The story is told while Juan is on his own honeymoon with Luisa. Shortly after his own marriage, Juan eavesdrops on a conversation between Luisa and his father and discovers the cause of the deaths of his father’s first two wives. In the skilled and surely tobacco-stained hand of Marías (he’s often smoking in author photos), the novel evolves into a meditation on honesty and memory and the weight of personal history we carry with us both before and after we unveil the truth.

The plot of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me hinges on honesty and revelation: Marta, a married woman, dies while her husband is out of town and the narrator, Víctor, is undressing her. After her death, Víctor poses as a speechwriter so he can become acquainted with Marta’s father, sister, and husband, and, through them, get to know Marta better in death than he did while she was alive. One perk of his duplicitous endeavor is that he gets to observe Marta’s sister’s legs at length:

I had already spent a good while staring at her legs and I no longer felt like a scoundrel or ashamed to be looking at them, perhaps because I did so at my leisure, unhypocritically and without witnesses, perhaps because, as I followed her, I could not do or want anything else, what more could I want?

The question readers are left with until the end is whether or not Víctor will confess to Marta’s husband that he was with her the night she died.

Need further confirmation that Marías is a leg-and-foot man?

This from A Heart So White: While Juan is on the aforementioned honeymoon, he stands on his hotel-room balcony and sees, below, a woman making a scene:

She had strong legs, strong enough to withstand the wait, legs that seemed to dig into the pavement with their thin, high, stiletto heels, but her legs were so strong, so striking, that they became one with her heels and it was her legs that dug solidly in—like a knife in wet wood—every time she returned to her chosen spot after that minimal movement to right or left.

Later, in the same novel, Juan visits his ex-girlfriend, Berta, in New York:

Berta had a car accident six years ago. One of her legs was crushed and she suffered multiple open fractures, the osteomyelitis set in and they thought they’d have to amputate, but they managed to save her leg, although she lost part of the femur, which they had to shorten, and ever since then she’s had a slight limp. It’s not so pronounced that she can’t wear shoes with heels (which she does with great panache), but the heel of one always has to be a little longer and thicker than that of the other shoe, she has them specially made.

And here’s a description the narrator of All Souls gives of his mistress’s toes:

… I could see the tips of her toes, the dark tips (the toecaps so to speak) of her dark tights. They peeped out from beneath the desk, on the carpet. I would have liked to touch her dark feet….

FACES AND SYMBOLS

Many of Marías’s novels revolve around this question: Can love be recalled accurately when it no longer exists? Marías implies that sex and legs and details of a death can be recalled, but love, and the faces of those we love, are the hardest to describe when they’re part of our past. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the narrator addresses no woman in particular, and all women in general, when he says,

What a disgrace it is to me to remember your name, though I may not know your face tomorrow, the face that we will one day cease to see will, meanwhile, betray itself and betray us in the time allotted to it, in the time remaining, it will distance itself from our fixed image of it in order to lead a life of its own during our voluntary or unhappy absence.

In All Souls, the young Spanish narrator is haunted by the image of a woman he encounters on the train and talks with for half an hour. He recounts:

I’ve completely forgotten her face but not her colors (yellow, blue, pink, white, red), yet I know that during the whole of my youth she was the woman who made the greatest and most immediate impact on me, although I also know that, traditionally, in both literature and real life, such a remark can only be made of women whom young men never actually meet.

In the most recently translated novel, The Man of Feeling, Natalia Manur is loved by two men: her husband and the narrator, León, a young opera singer preparing for his role as Cassio in Verdi’s Otello. Natalia is the Desdemona of the story, as the plot and the lives of the two main male characters revolve around her; yet she is only described in detail at the very beginning of the novel, when she is asleep on a train—and even then her eyes are closed and her hair conceals much of her face. Natalia is perennially depressed and in need of company and cheering up, and says exceedingly little throughout the book. She is shown in a very diffuse way, “as if through a veil,” Marías writes in an author’s afterword.

“This might seem surprising,” he continues, “given that she is also one of the main characters, but she belongs perhaps to that long line of fictional women (like Penelope, like Desdemona, like Dulcinea and so many others of less illustrious ancestry) whose existence is largely symbolic….”

Although the wives, ex-wives, and mistresses in Marías’s novels are for the most part well-rounded and intelligent, it’s the women his characters desire from afar that are the most sketchily drawn. The suggestion is that what they look like isn’t ever that important because the men who desire them will see them as they want to perceive them—just as Othello sees Desdemona as he wishes to perceive her. As I mentioned, we do get an initial glance at Natalia on the train, but even in passing, she is portrayed as unattractive—further proof that beauty is in the eye of the obsessor.

DISHONESTY

But even if we could see Natalia straight-on, the whole of Marías’s works seem to suggest, we still wouldn’t be perceiving her as she really is—especially since his narrator, León, is the one describing her to us.

In all his books, Marías and his narrators wrestle with the duplicity of words, and with their inability to express truth. In Dark Back of Time, the narrator laments as early as the second page that

… words—even when spoken, even at their crudest—are in and of themselves metaphorical and therefore imprecise, and cannot be imagined without ornament, though it is often involuntary; there is no ornament in even the most arid exposition and frequently in interjections and insults as well. All anyone has to do is introduce “as if” into the story, or not even that, all you need to do is use a simile, comparison, or figure of speech (“He was acting like a jerk,” “She flew into a rage”—the kind of colloquial expression that belongs to the language more than to the speaker who chose it, that’s all it takes), and fiction creeps into the narration of what happened, altering and falsifying it.

The phrase “words—even when spoken… —are… themselves metaphorical and therefore imprecise” is striking because it implies that words, when written, are guaranteed to be somewhat apocryphal. The struggle to get at and to convey truth is not foreign to Marías nor to his characters. In almost all his books, the only way his characters seem to be able to get the true story and uncover a secret is through eavesdropping or through other duplicitous means.

In A Heart So White, Juan discovers the truth about the deaths of his father’s wives by eavesdropping. In All Souls, the narrator eavesdrops on a male professor friend taking pornographic photos with a young man. Before overhearing their conversation, he had no clue his friend was gay. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the narrator, Víctor, steals the answering machine tape of the woman who dies on their first date, and it’s only through the tape that other details of her life are literally played for him. The answering machine tape reveals that she had another lover besides Víctor, who had wanted to see her the night of her death.

Only by dishonest means, Marías seems to conclude, can you come by honesty. Words are malleable, he repeatedly emphasizes, and when people know you’re listening, they’re likely to be telling a story. Ipicture Marías winking to his reader whenever he exhibits his suspicion of the veracity of words or of the capacity of the storyteller to convey the truth—for what are his books if not creations of stories for a captive audience?

HOW LANGUAGE FAILS US

Dark Back of Time, the sequel to All Souls, is Marías’s attempt to clarify the misunderstandings that arose after the publication of that first novel. All Souls is about a young, unnamed Spaniard teaching literature and translation classes at Oxford. Many readers assumed All Souls was a thinly veiled autobiography; after all, a few years before the book’s publication, Marías was, ahem, a young Spaniard teaching literature and translation at Oxford. Readers also assumed that, like his character, Marías had an affair with a married woman named Clare Bayes, and that he was now married to another woman named Lusia, and the father of a child.

Marías has fun with the disparity between perceptions of the nameless Spanish professor (referred to as “Our Spaniard”) in All Souls and himself, the narrator of Dark Back of Time. It’s easy to get so caught up in Marías’s plots (and even more difficult, I’m finding, to trace them and convey them in a sensical fashion) and theories and history lessons that we risk ignoring his sense of humor. He’s a funny, funny writer. His observations of academia in Dark Back of Time are self-deprecating and sharp: When an audience convenes around Marías in the hallway of a university to question him about autobiographical elements of the novel, he notices, on the face of one of the women gathered, an expression of contentment upon learning that unlike the narrator of All Souls, he’s single. “Nothing to feel boastful or conceited about,” he adds,

… given that all the world’s professors, male and female, enjoy what could be called “the podium effect,” due to which even the ugliest and most squalid, horrible, tyrannical, and despicable among them arouse spurious and delusional passions, as I know all too well. I’ve seen dazzling women barely out of their teens swooning and melting over some foul-smelling homunculus with a piece of chalk in his hand, and innocent boys degrading themselves (circumstantially) for a scrawny, furrowed bosom stooped over a desk.

Marías devotes much of Dark Back of Time to the difficulty of dispelling rumors or refuting someone’s interpretation of a story once it’s been written. He writes:

What I cannot and will never be able to do is demonstrate that the events of the novel did not happen to me in my life, since it is always impossible to demonstrate that you have not done something or committed some crime if the opposite is presumed, from the start, to be the case, a thing all dictators know very well…. So with respect to the scant degree of autobiography in my book, the only thing that is demonstrable in the negative was that I did not then and do not now have a wife named Luisa, nor, in fact, a wife by any name, and still less a child who was then a newborn…

We learn from Dark Back of Time that what’s most troubling to Marías is a letter he receives concerning Clare Bayes, the married woman with whom the nameless professor of All Souls has an affair. Marías’s friend Ian Michael writes, “I see quite a bit of Clare Bayes these days since she’s moved as well, to a street near my new one, and I often run into her. She’s always carrying a lot of things around with her, as in the novel. She’s still fairly appealing, but not as attractive as before. No one knows whether she’s taken a new lover.”

This is understandably nonplussing to Marías. What writer wouldn’t be baffled if he invented a character, basing her on no one in particular, and then that character was believed to exist beyond the realm of his novel? Furthermore, the people in Oxford transpose his character’s behavior onto a presumably innocent woman; this woman is suspected of having an affair—since the character she is believed to have inspired in Marías’s novel was having an affair. But more bewildering and disappointing to Marías is the thought that such a person exists at all. “I also regretted not having known her,” he writes, “because if she was no longer quite as attractive that meant she had been attractive when I was a temporary part of the city and the congregation.”

Then there are the “real-life” people who campaign for a part in Marías’s works. In Dark Back of Time, Marías writes of borrowing some of the real-life attributes of his friend Francisco Rico when fashioning a character by the name of Del Diestro in A Heart So White. But Francisco Rico complains that he wants to appear as himself in that novel, with no adulterations, no incorporated fragments.

Marías argues with Rico that it wouldn’t be right to have one real character appear among scores of fictitious ones. “There are real places and institutions in your novel, aren’t there?” Rico argues. Young Marías concedes that, yes, the United Nations and the Prado are mentioned in his novel. “Well there you have it,” Rico retorts. “I want to be like the Prado.”

As Marías narrates Dark Back of Time, he repeatedly finds that people are so desperate to believe in the world depicted in All Souls that they claim roles for themselves and campaign to have roles in future books. It’s as though the story no longer belongs to Marías, but is instead common currency that can be mangled and interpreted however one wishes.

The mind-bender is that the latter book, Dark Back of Time, too, is a novel, not an autobiography. And so he, the writer Javier Marías, is taking on the persona of the narrator Marías. Got it? Marías himself accentuates the distinction in Dark Back of Time by quoting his friends referring to him as “young Marías,” supposedly to differentiate him from his father, “who is also a writer, though not of fiction.” A reader can’t help wondering if the writer Javier Marías chose to have the narrator of the book referred to as “Young Marías” so that he too could be differentiated from his narrator, thus adding one more layer of authorial distance and mystery.

TRANSLATORS

It’s no accident that so many of Marías’s characters have professions that make use of their ability to manipulate or interpret words: In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, the protagonist is a screenwriter by profession, but he works as a speechwriter for the father of the dead woman. In Dark Back of Time, a narrator named Marías is explaining how people mistook his novel, All Souls, to be an autobiography. But it appears that Marías’s preferred profession for exploring the tricks and misrepresentations of language is that of a translator, or professor of translation.

In All Souls, the narrator is a professor of literature and translation classes. He admits that his function in translation classes as a

… walking Spanish grammar and dictionary was a more hazardous one than in my lectures and caused considerable wear and tear on my reflexes. The etymological questions were the most taxing, after a while, borne along by the impatience and a desire both to please and to get myself out of trouble, I became unscrupulous about inventing wild etymologies on the spot, convinced that neither the students nor my teaching colleague would ever be interested enough to check the truth of my replies.

When a student calls him on his fabricated explanation for the word papirotazo, the narrator blushes:

I felt more of an imposter than ever, but at the same time my conscience felt clearer, for it seemed to me that my crazy etymologies were not more nonsensical, no less likely than the real ones. Or rather, the true etymology of papirotazo struck me as being almost as outlandish as my invented one. Anyway, as the Ripper had pointed out, such ornamental language, whether false, genuine, or merely half-true, enjoyed only a very short life span. When true knowledge proves irrelevant, one is free to invent.

Not only does the narrator need to invent stories for his students, he also fabricates them on behalf of his mistress, Clare. Each time they end a romantic tryst in a hotel, he straightens out her hair and helps her compose a credible lie. He considers this sort of story creation the “intellectual exercise that underpins all adultery.”

In A Heart So White, Juan first meets his wife, Luisa, when they are both working as translators between a high-ranking male Spanish politician and a high-ranking female British politician. Juan is translating and Luisa is acting as the “net,” the translator who makes certain his translations are accurate. Juan takes his first liberty when the Spanish politician asks the British politician, “Would you like me to order you some tea?” Juan translates this as, “Tell me, do the people in your country love you?” The passage continues:

I could feel Luisa’s astonishment behind me, more than that, I noticed that she immediately uncrossed her startled legs (the long legs that were never out of my sight, like the expensive new Prada shoes, she certainly knew how to spend her money, unless someone else had given them to her), and for a few long seconds (I felt the back of my neck pierced by her sense of shock), I waited for her to intervene and denounce me, to correct or reprimand me, or rather for her, the “net,” to take over from me at once, that’s what she was there for. But those few seconds passed (one, two, three, four) and she said nothing, perhaps (I thought then) because the high-ranking British politician didn’t seem in the least offended and replied at once, with a kind of contained vehemence:

“I often wonder the same thing myself,” she said, and for the first time she crossed her legs, forgetting about her sensible skirt and revealing two very square, white knees.

Marías’s argument seems to be that if we can improve on words and conversations by mistranslating them, and because we can never get words to say what we mean, we might as well make them up. Perhaps in such fabrications, we’re being more honest than we are in trying to translate them.

It’s surprising that Marías doesn’t write more about music in his works, because he suggests that the sound of a woman singing or humming is the only respite we ever have from words whose meanings perpetually need to be translated, interpreted, or verified. Toward the end of A Heart So White, the translator Juan is lured away from thoughts of the past, or the future, by the sound of his wife, Luisa, singing in the bathroom:

I listen to that murmured feminine song, which isn’t sung in order to be heard, still less interpreted or translated, that insignificant song, with neither aim nor audience, which one hears and learns and never forgets. A song that is sung despite everything, but that is neither silenced nor diluted once it’s sung.…

MEMORY AND ANTICIPATION

The Man of Feeling is not one of Marías’s best books. It’s lean and compact and well-written, but has no long meditative Maríasian tangents, and the novel is a little less rich for their absence. It’s an important book, however, because, written in 1986, it can be read as a blueprint for his later books.

León, the protagonist of The Man of Feeling, is by profession a tenor opera singer. He wants to tell the story of his affair with a woman named Natalia Manur, but has difficulty confessing his story to the reader:

… I find myself resisting telling you everything. A poor tenor who is afraid of using his own dreams, as if using words instead of lyrics, words that have not yet been dictated, invented phrases rather than repetitive written texts, learned and memorized, had paralyzed his powerful voice, which up until now has only known the recitative style. I find it hard to speak without a libretto.

And so León finds himself playing the part of Cassio in his life as well as on the stage.

His mistress, Natalia Manur, is married to Señor Manur, whom she doesn’t love. Manur grows suspicious of León’s intentions toward his wife, and asks him to back off, reminding him that Natalia “belongs” to him in the strictest sense of the word. But Manur’s threats only encourage León to pursue Natalia, to feel what Manur feels:

I now know that it was Manur who infected me, or, rather, that I was the one who exposed myself to contamination or chose to imitate him…. Have you never discovered in the attitudes or words or gestures of other people what you had never previously been able to put your finger on?… Have you never felt the temptation, or more than that, the need to scrupulously copy someone else’s being in order to take it from them and appropriate it for yourself?

Like Othello, it’s Manur’s own jealousy that does him in. But in this rendition, it’s clear that León wants to experience this same love that causes such possessiveness. After the opening night of the performance of Otello, Natalia leaves Manur for León, and Manur kills himself. León recounts the story four years later, after he’s been left by Natalia. But not to worry, León assures us; in this instance, he would be incapable of following Manur’s example.

Marías intimates both in the epilogue and in the pages of the novel itself that León survives because, at the point at which he’s narrating Natalia’s unexpected departure, he has experienced love, and is recalling it. Marías tells us that memory is what “makes all things bearable.” Manur, on the other hand, kills himself because he’s still waiting, still anticipating, the day when Natalia will truly love him. When she leaves him, he knows this day will never come.

Again and again, Marías reminds us that it’s memory that makes things bearable. At the end of Tomorrow in the Battle, Víctor, the narrator who was about to bed the married woman when she dies, contemplates the life of the woman’s son. He met the son the night of Marta’s death and when he sees him again, the son recognizes him and addresses him by name. Marías writes:

That boy will never know what happened, his father and his aunt will hide it from him, I will, too, and it doesn’t really matter because so many things happen without anyone realizing or remembering, everything is forgotten or invalidated. And how little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about, and, afterwards, one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly….

This is one distinction between Sebald and Marías: Although Sebald writes about the importance of remembering the past (his Austerlitz is about a man who struggles to rescue his heritage from oblivion, and The Emigrants and Rings of Saturn are also about restoring memory), Marías tells us that it’s only memory that heals all wounds, in part, because we are so bad at remembering, and “little trace remains of anything.” But there are greater differences, of course. Although Sebald is very much a European writer writing about the Holocaust and about specific locations in Europe (with photos, no less), Marías is more pan-national. With the possible exception of All Souls (which makes some witty observations about Oxfordians), Marías’s books could take place anywhere. There’s no food-specific, flower-specific, people-specific aspect about any of them. When Marías does employ photos in his texts, they’re of Redonda. We’re shown a map of the island complete with a legend, including “Post Office. Buy stamps and mail letters.” This universality of Marías’s settings, combined with his focus on a strange island that may or may not exist, perhaps explains why it’s possible to read Marías and not be reminded that he’s a Spanish writer and, perhaps why it’s easy to forget you’re reading his work in translation.

HOTEL ROOMS

Although Marías’s novels take place in various countries—England, Spain, Cuba, and America—his narrators, whether on a honeymoon, meeting with a mistress, or travelling for work, most often find themselves in hotel rooms. In The Man of Feeling, León exalts in the virtues of the luxury hotel:

To the good fortune of most of us singers, one luxury hotel is always much like any other luxury hotel… so much that many colleagues manage to persuade themselves—intermittently—that every time they leave home and go off to work in another country or another town, the country or town in question does not vary, but is always the same.

Just as the countries and towns don’t seem to matter to the singers, Marías doesn’t distinguish much between the settings of his stories. Case in point: At the beginning of A Heart So White, there’s a scene in which Juan and Luisa are honeymooning in a hotel in Havana. He uses the exact scene in his earlier short story “On the Honeymoon,” which appears in his collection When I Was Mortal. The only difference is that the hotel in the story is in Seville. But, other than the substitution of place, the words are exactly the same.

So yes, Marías is a Spanish writer, but he doesn’t write much about Spain (or specifically about the landscape of any country, for that matter, save for the island of Redonda). Instead, his focus is directed toward those classic themes much employed in Shakespeare and the world over—love, identity, memory, betrayal, jealousy, and murder. Does this make him more of an accessible writer? Certainly. But it also weakens his chances of becoming our literary ambassador from Spain. Because when we select our representative writer from a given country, we want to believe he or she is bringing us something, well, foreign: lush descriptions of jasmine flowers from India, news of the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa, reports on Cuban prisons, a peek inside a Japanese refrigerator, testimonies about the Holocaust in Germany. Earlier, I questioned why Hrabal does not share the writerly ambassadorship from the Czech Republic with Kundera. The answer is in his subject matter: Hrabal writes about Czechoslovakia during World War II and the Holocaust, but what we want from the Czech Republic is something intrinsic to that country: We want the Velvet Revolution, and, thus, Kundera, and not Hrabal, is our man. Conversely, we seem to only want to read Germans on the subject of the Holocaust. From Sebald to Berhnard Schlink (author of The Reader), we want to know about the aftermath of WWII in Germany and its effect on Germans.

Increasingly, we are becoming a country of literary tourists, seeking what we want from various parts of the world, as though collecting souvenirs. We want magic realism from our Latin American writers, descriptions of poverty and castes from our Indian writers, samplings of food from Mexico and Italy, stories of love and mistresses from France. And what do we want from Spain? Stories of civil war and bullfighting, perhaps. That’s why Hemingway is, in a sense, our best chronicler of Spain as we want to know and perceive it, with Orwell coming in a close second.

Toward the end of Dark Back of Time, Marías describes Redonda as an uninhabited island that sometimes appears on maps and sometimes doesn’t, a place that simultaneously exists and is imaginary. He tells us that he’s the fourth in a line of kings of the island, and that he serves as the literary executor and legal heir of his predecessors. How is the crown passed down? “It’s a realm inherited through irony and writing, never through solemnity and blood,” Marías explains. It’s fitting that Marías, who himself admits that he likes to write about things that happen in a sphere that isn’t precisely temporal, would find himself king of an island—a title and a position that seem as though they could exist only in the past or in the imagination of a writer. And equally appropriate that he, a Spanish writer who writes little of his country, would find himself king not through bloodlines or nationality, but through a writerly lineage. While Marías’s novels contain no mention of matadors or sangria, he succeeds in creating stories that are difficult to place in time and bear no strong traces of any one country as we know it. So perhaps Javier Marías would fare better at having a readership in America if he weren’t nominated as our representative from Spain, but rather from the legendary kingdom of Redonda.

Vendela Vida edits The Believer.

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