Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me by Javier Marías
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A man and a woman are about to commit adultery. Suddenly the woman dies on him. The man cannot report her death and must immediately leave her and her sleeping child behind. From this opening scene, the novelist explores the idea of narrating and storytelling as acts fraught with emotional baggage, of the art of novel-writing as essentially ghostwriting. Later, the man considers revealing his identity to the woman's husband. He feels that unburdening himself can be the only way to save them both. He does not realize that both of them may already be past saving.
I reeled from the unexpected ending of this novel. The novelist's style is just as suspenseful and addictive as his other books. It is in some ways a companion book to his short story Bad Nature, whose narrator appears as a minor character in this novel.
The novelist can be said to act as a ghostwriter for his narrator, V., who was himself a ghostwriter in the novel. All the characters' thoughts and dialogues are filtered through V.'s consciousness, sometimes to the point of second-guessing them, as when he thought, inside quotations (emphases added):
"It's so easy to live in a state of delusion, or to be deceived," I thought, "indeed, it is our natural condition: no one is free of it and it certainly doesn't mean that one is stupid, we should not struggle so hard against it nor should we let it embitter us." That is what [he] had said, although he had added: "And yet, when we do learn the truth, we find it unbearable."
This is a key passage not only to this novel, but to the rest of Javier Marías's major fiction, all using the first person narration. It underscores his sublime ventriloquism and ghostwriting: the narrator thinking aloud his story and imputing words to the other characters. In a recent interview Marías said of his writing style: "I don't play tricks, that’s why I write in the first person." That is a tricky thing to say.
The narrator's profession is yet again a wonderful conceit on the part of the novelist, as it forces the two of them (narrator and novelist) to invent words for someone. As with A Heart So White, this novel luxuriates in the "dangerous" acts of observation and perception. This time, the narrator is actually twice removed from his subject (the politician he is writing a speech for) by having to fill the shoes of his ghostwriter-friend Ruibérriz who acts as his literary agent. He is, in fact, a "ghostwriter of a ghostwriter". Perhaps a fitting occupation for someone who is, all throughout the book, haunted by a ghost.
Marías's novels support the idea of 'faithful' translation and storytelling (novel-writing) as acts of careful and informed interpretations, as vehicles of interpretation themselves. The main characters - as translator, interpreter, ghostwriter - act as intermediaries between two parties trying to seek an understanding. In A Heart So White, between two world leaders; in this book, between a powerful political figure and his subjects. The translating language, the 'target' language, thus becomes a hospitable medium. Reading it in Margaret Jull Costa's expert translation adds a layer of déjà vu to the mix.
The novel-writing then doubles as translation, a way to capture and match ideas and intentions in the original language (thought) and to convey them in another (text/speech). The free first-person narrative style, proceeding in a deliberately digressive and lengthy trajectory of conscious memories and dreams, betrays the writer's intent to sharpen the perception of a reader caught in a swirl of words and ideas. To open communications between the embattled reader and the text.
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