Sunday, September 21, 2008

An Inconvenient Death

Javier Marías
Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
The Harvill Press, 1998
Softcover, 311 pages

First published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama in 1995, Javier Marías’ ninth novel (third to be published in English translation) is attracting word-of-mouth attention a decade after its release in English. Last winter, I received recommendations to read it from two friends who do not know one another, both of whose tastes in literature I respect.

Now I pass the recommendation on to you.

While Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me is not a simple read, it is a compelling one. Written for the most part without paragraph breaks for dialogue, the book comprises more than 300 pages of fairly dense text, to all of which the reader needs to pay close attention or find herself marooned mid-page wondering where she is. Not only does Marías create a stream of consciousness for his narrator, his narrator also invents them for other characters in the book—and then refers back to those invented imaginings, leaving the inattentive reader to need suddenly to start flipping back through pages and pages of text to find where the perspective has changed.

Fortunately, attentive reading of Marías’ writing brings innumerable rewards.

One of the reasons this novel is so compelling is its set-up. Here is the opening sentence:
No one ever expects that they might some 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.
With this thought, the narrator, Victor Francés, embarks on a serious (well, perhaps at times only semi-serious) reflection on the host of ways in which one may die at an ignoble and perhaps even embarrassing moment in one’s life, and how the news of such a death may be greeted by the people who knew the now-deceased, depending on how they felt about that person.

We learn, very gradually, detail by detail, how Francés (just now it seems from the way the story is recounted, just a bit earlier this evening) was about to make love to a beautiful young woman, Marta Téllez —how they patiently passed the time until her small son finally went to sleep, how they made their way to the bedroom and into the bed, how they began to undress one another, and then how she began to feel unwell. Soon afterward, she died.

This has turned into a very difficult situation for Francés. He knew the woman very little; her husband is away in England: What is he to do? Whom should he notify? He’d prefer to simply flee, but if he leaves the apartment without telling someone, what will happen to the child?

The convoluted set of circumstances that are precipitated by the death of Marta Téllez turn Tomorrow in the Battle into an intriguing mystery novel that is also a poetic and philosophical exploration of (among numerous other issues) the perplexing forms that life, death, memory and love can take— not to mention the ins and outs of Spanish government bureaucracy.

Tomorrow in the Battle is a book that focuses our attention on connections. Francés is obsessed, for example, with the relationship that he imagines exists between people who have slept with the same people – with his connection, therefore, to Marta’s husband, and with his relationship to the men who have been with his own wife since their marriage came apart.

It is a book about the reliability of memory: at one point Francés—now not having slept for several days—encounters a prostitute who resembles his ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in months, and he begins to wonder if perhaps it is his wife. He offers her money, she takes it, he engineers a quiet moment in his vehicle so that she may earn the money he has given her—still not certain if it is Celia or not.

And it is a book, of course, about vengeance and accountability and—less predictably—the vicissitudes of fate.

Tomorrow in the Battle is an engrossing read, not only because of our curiosity to find out what happens next, but because of the compelling nature of Marías’ use of detail—the slow way he reveals each thought, each scene. Immersed in the narrator’s increasingly edgy stream of consciousness we lose, as he obviously has, the ability to tell the difference between the significant and the insignificant detail:
His [Déan’s, Marta’s husband’s] face grew even more sombre, his energetic chin turned away as if in flight, his beer-coloured eyes glinting wildly as they had when he had left the restaurant and Téllez [Marta’s father] wouldn’t let him pay the bill, but we were not lit now by the greenish light of a storm, only by electric light and, outside, fog which, in the city, looks yellowish or whitish or reddish, it depends.

Marías has been acclaimed by reviewers around the world, and he has been tagged for a future Nobel Prize in the pages of Guardian Books. His novels have won nine international awards, been translated into 34 languages, and sold at least five million copies.

I think he should be even better known. So read this book. If you like it, pass the word along.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Sermon Does Not Good Fiction Make

Paul Theroux
The Elephanta Suite
McClelland & Stewart (Emblem), 2007
Softcover, 274 pages

The Elephanta Suite is a collection of three novellas connected by a theme, a few recurring minor characters, and the hotel rooms of the title. All three stories concern the experiences of Americans encountering India for the first time. Their motives and situations vary, but they share a fundamental, and ultimately dangerous, lack of knowledge about the country they are visiting.

In the first novella Beth and Audie Blunden, a wealthy middle-aged couple, have come to India to stay at an Ayurvedic spa. Protected from the political and economic realities of India by the luxury of their accommodation and the efforts of their hosts, both are drawn by the mystique—the very notion of “being in India”—to commit infidelities. They soon discover the error of assuming that nobody matters but them, and that they are safe as long as they keep their indiscretions from one another.

The second novella concerns a Boston lawyer and businessman, Dwight Huntsinger, whose company develops outsourcing opportunities for American businesses. His first one-week trip to Mumbai is an utter horror. (“He had dreaded it, and it had exceeded even his fearful expectations—dirtier, smellier, more chaotic and unforgiving than anywhere he’d ever been.”) But on his next trip, he is lured into paying for sex with a young girl, and gradually he finds his own dark nature seeking its level, drawing him back and back again to relish the power he believes his money gives him over a small group of impoverished residents of the backstreets of Mumbai.

The third story tells the tale of a young woman, Alice, who has come to India from Providence with a university acquaintance. Their plan is to tour the country and then spend time on an ashram but Stella falls in love with a young filmmaker in Mumbai and decides to stay there. Determined that she has the strength to face anything alone, including India, Alice sets off by herself on an adventure that will find her putting her own talents and a hefty dose of misdirected feminism to use in ways that will ultimately bring her down. Like the characters in the previous two stories, she falls in love with India but fails utterly to understand it.

Over and over again in a dozen different ways throughout this book, Theroux reminds us that the longing of Indians for the perceived wealth and ease of the American way of life does not mean that they want to be Americans, or that they even like Americans. He points out the fallibility of westerners who come to India believing they are invisible and free and can therefore do whatever they want, and/or (to add to the confusion) that when they get into trouble, Indian society will deploy the same ethical and legal principles as the ones they might find at home. He demonstrates the ways in which Indians resist western ignorance: through subterfuge, lying, disappearing, ignoring, pretending—all behaviours that reveal their basic lack of interest in and respect for visitors to their country. Their concern is for themselves.

Theroux also wants us to know that only a very small part of India is reflected in the romantic, colourful, mysterious depictions of that country that we receive from other writers—including many of India’s own expatriates—to realize that up close it is for the most part a desperately poor nation where each day millions wage unsuccessful battles to find enough to eat. His message is effectively conveyed: as an avid reader of books about India who has longed for years to go there, I am now convinced to travel there with utmost caution, and to keep in mind that there are many, many boundaries that foreigners cross only at their peril.

Unfortunately, in The Elephanta Suite the message does nothing for the medium. All three novellas seem to have been set up to convey the author’s central lesson, and as a result their plots feel awkward and contrived. The second novella is the most successful–Dwight’s gradual recognition of his own emptiness and ignorance, and his ultimate awareness that the only way to redeem himself is to disappear, also redeem the ending. In the other two cases, the outcomes simply seem manipulated, unsatisfying—even a little old-fashioned.

Theroux is a gifted writer. As in his previous novels, his writing here is evocative and effective—rich in the endlessly fascinating details that seem to distinguish all books about India. He also successfully probes the minds of diverse American characters, although he makes no real effort to delve into the perspectives of the dozens of Indians he writes about; of these, indeed, only two can even be considered genuinely kind.

The Elephanta Suite serves as an easily digested (if unpleasant and disturbing) warning to those who would attempt to get a close-up view of India. However, Theroux’s apparent need to steer his characters in directions that will deliver this message undermines the quality of the fiction.

[iCopyright] Copyright 2008 Mary W. Walters