Dave King on Javier Marías’s Dark Back of Time
Please enjoy this copy of Javier Marías’s Dark Back of Time, presented to you in the spirit of proselytizing. “I believe I’ve still never mistaken fiction for reality,” Marías begins—offering, perhaps, the first of many possible inventions and introducing a narrator who, in his astonishment at art’s irresistible seductions, must surely be fiction. Mustn’t he? That narrator is one Javier Marías, ruler of the island “nation” of Redonda and author of numerous books, including the Oxford novel All Souls. On its web site, the Spanish publisher Alfaguara describes Negra espaldadel tiempo as both a “novela” and a “falsa novela.” Oh, really? Is that “falsa” as in “faux”? New Directions, the American publisher, is more slippery, calling the volume simply a “work.” But a work of what? Well, a work of fiction mistaken for reality. That is, unless it’s just the opposite.
Dark Back of Time opens with the narrator’s bewilderment that, in the area around Oxford, All Souls is assumed to be a roman à clef. Not so! our innocent narrator protests. True, he was a visiting scholar at the university for two years, and, like the protagonist of All Souls, he did frequent secondhand booksellers to seek out the work of a ghostly, improbably pseudonymous writer, a character so fanciful, gentle traveler, you’ll feel silly even typing his name into Wikipedia—until a bio arises onscreen, and you sit up in dismay. Between truth and fiction, which is stranger, stranger?
But back to that roman à clef. What of the book’s extramarital assignations, its cuckold husband, its unkind cartoons of a chorus of Oxford dons? Why, those were fictions, protests the good narrator—as completely invented as the action of any novel. Why will no one believe him? The dons and the booksellers insist on finding their own portraits in the pages of All Souls—though the unfaithful wife, we’re informed dryly, has long since moved on. And this is just the book’s opener. Off next to Redonda!
Do you wish, gentle traveler, that we’d included in our presentation a copy of All Souls, so that you might read both books together, in perfect impartiality, and form an independent judgment? You still can; All Souls is in print. And yet: perfect impartiality … isn’t that rather naïve? Are you not better off simply with faith?