The narrator of Your Face Tomorrow is obsessed with names – nicknames, fake names, his own name, all perfectly apt for the hero of a spy novel – but he did not always have a name himself, not in his earlier books. Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear is not the first book of a trilogy, it turns out, but the third book of five, or more likely the Xth book of N.
Marías skillfully avoids proper names for the first eleven pages of YFT:F&S before almost inadvertently slipping one in on page 14. Then nothing for a few more pages; then a flurry of names on pages 18 and 19, where something odd happened: I recognized the narrator, along with another character he mentioned. I had met them before, in another novel, one that preceded YFT by thirteen years, the 1989 All Souls. The spy novel’s many-named narrator is also the unnamed narrator of All Souls.
It was ten years ago that I read All Souls. I can be precise because along with All Souls, in paperback, I purchased the English translation of Dark Back of Time (1998) in hardback soon after it came out in 2001. An article in The Hudson Review had piqued my interest in Dark Back of Time, but its author had suggested that I read All Souls first, which I did, immediately, although Dark Back of Time for some reason was carted around the country unread until last week. Dark Back of Time is narrated by a new character, or one new to me, “Javier Marías”:
I'm going to stop now and say no more for a while; I remember what I said long ago, in speaking of the narrator and author who have the same name here: I said I no longer know if there is one of us or two, at least while I am writing. Now I know that of those two possible figures, one would have to be fictitious. (DBoT, 336)
Dark Back of Time is not a sequel to All Souls, but is about that novel, about its publication and reception and some strange real-life, so to speak, events caused by part of the plot of All Souls. The latter, earlier book is a campus novel, sub-genre Oxford (“one of the cities in the world where least work gets done, where simply being is much more important than doing or even acting,” AS 4) with lots of amusingly odd customs and wacky professors. What I remember best about the novel is its lengthy tour of Oxford used book shops – All Souls is a great classic in the all too rare “used book shopping” genre. The fictional narrator becomes tangled up in the story of an obscure but real writer, John Gawsworth, which eventually leads (later, outside of the novel) to the real writer Javier Marías being declared King of Redonda, a title he still holds today.
Dark Back of Time is to some degree about how the fiction of All Souls intrudes on reality, how a fiction becomes real, but remains fiction, or even fictionalizes reality. It begins with “real” Oxford professors searching for themselves in All Souls, which Marías insists is entirely the product of his imagination, all but the highly unlikely story of John Gawsworth, and then somehow shifts to the subject of bizarre deaths, buttressed by more book collecting. The underlying idea is that everyone’s death, everyone’s life, is disquietingly unlikely.
I refer the reader interested in the Kingdom of Redonda, or curious about how Alice Munro became the Duchess of Ontario, to the English Wikipedia page for Javier Marías, the Redonda section, which is, I have no doubt, packed with smoke, half-truths, jokes, and outright lies, just like Dark Back of Time.
Before I forget: Dark Back of Time is translated by Esther Allen, while All Souls and the three chunks of Your Face Tomorrow are by the indefatigable Margaret Jull Costa. Good, good translations.