I just worked it out from the novel

Michael Wood

It’s easy to feel that life leaves too many traces or too few, scarcely ever the right amount: either fingerprints everywhere or total erasure. In such a mood your memory itself becomes a double agent, and you may be ready, like the hero of Orson Welles’s Mr Arkadin, to hire a private eye to explore your own past or, like the hero of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, to welcome the devil as your research assistant. You could also just read one of the formidably intelligent works of Javier Marías, expert in what he calls the ‘shadows’ of the untold story. He is the author of eight novels, the last three of which are available in English (from Harvill) as All Souls, A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. All three are admirably translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who not only catches the meanings of words with grace and precision, but gets rhythms of thought, and even better, rhythms of afterthought to carry over into English. Marías writes the kind of old-fashioned, speculative prose we associate with Proust and Henry James, all qualifications and revisions, no assertion that can’t be infinitely embroidered or unravelled. But he also deals in violence, historical and personal, and in the movie titles, politicians, brand-names and underwear we connect with a quite different kind of writer. The King of Spain (identified only by various nicknames, Solus, the One and Only, Only You, the Lone Ranger and so on), appears in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, and Mrs Thatcher (recognisable from her lipstick, her manicure and the fact that she is called ‘the British leader’) in A Heart So White. In All Souls people die and are remembered, strange coincidences link the past to the present. In A Heart So White a remote and lurid suicide finds echoes in apparently unconnected lives. In Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me a man discovers he has a corpse in his arms and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a tellable story for this uncomfortable fact. All of these books are impressive, but the latest, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, probably offers the deepest immersion in Marías’s haunted universe.

Toy aeroplanes hang in a child’s bedroom, fighters and bombers from two world wars, German and English and Russian and Japanese machines, an imaginary international encounter in the dark.

The planes did not move or sway, apart from a very slight toing and froing – a kind of inert, or perhaps impassive, oscillation – inevitable in any light object suspended by a thread: as if above the head and body of the child they were all languidly preparing for some weary night-time foray, tiny, ghostly and impossible, which would, nonetheless, have taken place several times in the past, or perhaps it still took place anachronistically each night.

The bedroom is in Madrid, and the planes and the wars suggest still other conflicts to the man who is looking at them, the bombardment of the city during the Spanish Civil War, for example, and an ancient English battle which runs in the man’s mind because he has seen and can’t forget a famous movie. Ghosts visit a sleeping kingly figure, wishing him all kinds of ill, muttering grisly promises and instructions. They say: ‘Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow,’ and ‘Tomorrow in the battle think on me,/And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!’ The ghosts are those of the people we know as the Duke of Clarence, Prince Edward, Queen Anne and others. The movie is Richard III, although the man in the novel doesn’t know this, since he has caught only part of the film on television, and the time is the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field.

The toy planes and the movie run through the novel like flickering images of endless war, remembered, anticipated, simulated, transposed, hidden. The child, again, ‘dreams in blissful ignorance beneath his inherited scene of aerial combat’, and the narrator, without a break, makes the connection again: ‘Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal; and let fall thy lance.’ This is an amalgam of several voices from the movie, a scrambled memory, a secondary haunting. On the last page of the book the narrator is still thinking about the child’s planes, half-quoting his own earlier description.

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