Friday, January 26, 2007

Book Review: A Heart So White / Dark Back of Time by Javier Marias

Mere plot summary would give you a mistaken impression. A nameless Spaniard spends two years teaching at Oxford, has an affair with a married woman and buys a lot of rather obscure old English books. A man in Madrid is about to have an affair with a married woman when she drops dead in his arms; he flees the scene and spends the next few months surreptitiously getting to know the surviving members of her family. A simultaneous translator, recently married to another simultaneous translator, uses the growing friendship between his wife and his father to unravel the mystery behind a suicide that took place before he was born. An author reflects on the strange events -- many of them involving eccentric Englishmen, others having to do with his own private and public life -- that are connected to the publication of one of his earlier novels.

These are the story lines (though that may be precisely the wrong word, for they come to us in circular, disconnected form) of ''All Souls,'' ''Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me,'' ''A Heart So White'' and ''Dark Back of Time,'' the four novels by the Spanish writer Javier Marías that are now available in English. If you judged by the summaries alone, you might guess that Marías's fiction is ludicrously melodramatic or cruelly comic or tediously postmodern. It is none of these. On the contrary, all four novels possess an odd combination of true sadness and deeply satisfying wit that I have yet to find in any of Marías's English or American contemporaries.

Although this review will concentrate on the two novels that are most recently available, it is difficult, with Marías, to segregate any single work from the others. The experience of reading him is cumulative. When you take up a Marías novel or even a Marías short story, you are at once enclosed in a strange world that becomes increasingly and addictively familiar. Names and characters recur: the wives are often called Luisa, a slightly suspect friend will be either Custardoy or Ruibérriz de Torres, and there are frequent references to an Englishman named John Gawsworth and his position as king of Redonda. Public figures, too, put in an appearance, though Franco is not always called Franco, and Margaret Thatcher may simply be identified as a female British leader. The events take place mainly in Madrid, but London, Oxford, Havana, Venice and New York are also knowledgeably invoked. Time is an active presence, a nearly tangible entity. Ghosts flit through; sometimes (as in the title story in the collection ''When I Was Mortal'') they even act as narrators.
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