There’s been a lotta love shown for Javier Marías this #spanishlitmonth. (Here, here, here and here, with more to follow no doubt.) Enough love to convince me that it was time to dust off the copy that the lovely Frances sent me back in 2011. (Hangs head in shame.)
This short collection of stories (10 stories/130 pages), published over the course of 30 years, reads very quickly. They are not presented chronologically but the year of publication is noted at the end of each. So, you could read them chronologically, starting with the one Marías wrote when he was only 14, The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga (published 1968 when he was 16) and ending with A Kind of Nostalgia Perhaps (published 1998).
I didn’t bother with that. I read from beginning to end noting a preoccupation with mortality, the ironic and the absurd.
The title story and the first of the collection sets the tone. Two strangers sit talking at night by a deserted swimming pool. Their wives are sleeping in the hotel rooms. Or are they? One of the conversationalists disclosing his absolute obsession with his much younger wife, who he met as a girl. He is aware that the feeling, now reciprocated, won’t always be, and that before his wife walks aways he will have to kill her. Is this a joke? It appears not but then he asks the other how certain he can be that she isn’t already dead. There’s enough ambiguity in his story to present his listener with a moral dilemma. Should he check up on her at the risk of appearing mad, if she is alive and well? How will he feel if he decides it is none of his business and she is already dead, or worse still, alive but found dead sometime in the future? What would you do?
The preoccupation with death and what happens afterwards engenders a story written by a corpse, another featuring a series of love letters written by a dead person to a living one, a story of a haunted school, and a ghost who quietly listens as stories are read aloud. None of Marías spectres are malicious, so these stories are not scary in any way. They are more metaphysical pieces – the author trying to understand the possibilities of death – in a playful way.
My favourite story was An Epigram of Fealty. An antiquarian bookseller has just put out some of his rare and valuable books in the window display, when a tramp begins to take a closer look, showing particular interest in the book worth £50,000. Having been scowled at, the tramp leaves only to return with a few of his street mates. At this the bookseller goes to shoo them away. The tramp surprises him with the claim that he is none other than the author of said book, John Gawsworth, King of Redonda. A likely story. The bookseller sends them on their way but as he returns to his shop, he can’t help wondering if a) the tramp was telling the truth and b) how much the book would be worth with a signature!
That King of Redonda title a clue to Marías’s playfulness because he is the current King of Redonda and John Gawsworth, a London poet, once was. More about the Kingdom of Redonda here. If ever, there were proof that fact is stranger than fiction, here it is!
However, I digress. I thoroughly enjoyed this collection and I suspect that beneath the very entertaining surface, there are further layers to be mined. These stories have certainly switched me onto Marías and I will definitely read more soon.
PS A great recommendation, Frances. Feel free to send more my way anytime you want. 😳