Call it magnificence

Michael Hofmann

Ten years ago, I wrote a review of an earlier book by the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina, Sepharad. The review was spiked, and I don’t have it, or the book, or much memory of the book. Of course, this one may be spiked as well, but I’ve now read Like a Fading Shadow four times, and I can see it will be one of a handful of books I open and start reading – somewhere, anywhere – at least once a year for the rest of my life. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Nightwood, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Under the Volcano, The Enigma of Arrival, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, The Beginning of Spring: these are novels with magic in their molecules. They may be prose, but they demand to be reacquired periodically in the way that otherwise only poetry does.

It doesn’t even sound like a book I’d like. It’s the story of Martin Luther King’s murderer, James Earl Ray, mostly on the run in 1968, and mostly for a couple of weeks in Lisbon, spliced with reflection on a crisis (he of course doesn’t use such a word) in Muñoz Molina’s early life twenty years later, when his second child was born and he was trying to find his second novel, Winter in Lisbon. These two strands are sandwiched together in alternate chapters in that Mario Vargas Llosa way (though for all I know others did it earlier) that seems mechanical, undemanding, irrational and so perfectly ubiquitous it’s rare to get a single-strand novel going from A to Z these days. Both aspects of the book came in for criticism: the New Republic had a piece called ‘Can a Historical Novel Be Too Deeply Researched?’ with the implication that, yes it can, and hey, what about this one; while elsewhere, no doubt straight-ahead action-loving male readers may have been on board with James Earl Ray, but they were miffed to find so much Antonio Muñoz Molina. Both objections seemed plausible to me; they might even have been calculated to appeal to me as a reader. I don’t like fiction that smells of the lamp, and I don’t trust what looks like a gratuitous desire to jazz or foul things up when they might have been straightforward.

Neither objection holds. Muñoz Molina may well know all there is to know about James Earl Ray, but he has also forgotten it. The information spills out of him, but it is his. He doesn’t face the reader down with facts; he doesn’t write as though with his fingers in many books, or his computer open on many sites; things shake out indifferently like snow or feathers from the airing bedding of Frau Holle in the German Märchen:

There was a British flag next to the desk of the immigration agent. There was a .32-calibre revolver in his back pocket. Liberty Chief, made in Japan. The past is full of exotic minutiae. In 1968, security checks at airports had no metal detectors and a fugitive with no documentation could obtain, via mail and without much difficulty, a birth certificate with someone else’s name. That was enough to get a Canadian passport. The immigration agent spoke in such a weird way that it took him a while to realise the man was actually speaking English. On the wall behind him: a colour portrait of the Queen of England – 007 at the service of Her Majesty.

The sentences have the involuntary, palpable beauty of snowflakes. He follows Rilke’s almost Oriental prescription that one must have seen and experienced many things in life, and then forgotten them. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a less coercive or imposing manner than Muñoz Molina’s. He repeats, contradicts, varies, lets go, peters out. ‘Literature is built with things that exist and things that do not,’ he shrugs. ‘A drawing is mostly empty space.’ There are lots of things he doesn’t know, still more that can’t be known; ‘or not’ or ‘perhaps’ are constant possibilities. There are no battalions, there is only himself, and he is neither a fusspot nor a bully. This isn’t writing at the anxious service of facts. He doesn’t make his book say why it is, or why it is as it is: it is all we are given. It is the ‘how’ of ‘what’ and the ‘what’ is to some extent quodlibetical, a matter of indifference or near indifference. It generates sentences, and the sentences generate momentum. As far as I was concerned, the book could have been about his literary agent and his diary for the past week. It doesn’t cringe before the reader. It is beyond contingency and dependency. Gottfried Benn imagines a poem written without piety, without the display of laudable feelings, without what they nowadays call ‘virtue signalling’; if the man can write it (he says ‘man’, he doesn’t mean it that way), can endow it with fascination, it might be one verse of Bradshaw, one verse of hymn book, one verse of music hall joke. Whereas the other thing – ‘polystrophic rhymed gush to loved ones’ is Benn’s description – not even the layman thinks that’s poetry. Poetry, Anna Akhmatova said, ‘is made from all sorts of rubbish’.

‘There is nothing that is not memorable,’ Muñoz Molina says, and then we get a half-page list of things that were found on Ray when he was finally picked up at Heathrow Airport on 8 June 1968 (beginning with the Liberty Chief), or a line from Emily Dickinson or Jorge Guillén or García Lorca, or the moody flotsam that he watches bobbing up on the tideline of the estuarial Tagus (‘sand,/Atlantic Ocean, condoms, sand’ – all right, that’s Lowell), it barely matters. The absence of thesis, agenda, pointer, lesson is exhilarating. The author wastes no time justifying himself or excoriating the murderer, or vice versa. ‘I’m exercising my right to an ancient form of solitude, disconnected from everything,’ he writes, with his characteristic blend of truthfulness, originality, intimate address and the greatest possible distance. Call it magnificence, and when did you last encounter magnificence in a novel? He has gained for himself perhaps the greatest objective of the modern novelist: the freedom, in his next sentence, to say anything at all.

A map of Portugal. A spray can of Right Guard deodorant. A small shampoo bottle. A map of London. A birth certificate with the name Ramon George Sneyd. Two bars of soap. Sixty British pounds in five-pound notes. Hair pomade. A paperback novel titled The Ninth Directive. Shaving cream. Another paperback novel, quite worn, titled Tangier Assignment. A toothbrush. A book titled Psycho-Cybernetics. An inhaler. A hand mirror. Black shoe polish.

Someone reading this piece might say: ‘So? A list of personal effects? What’s the big deal?’ Well, it’s the limits, and the pathos. It might be budget astronaut equipment. The apprehensive emphasis on personal care. Is it vanity or glamour, or a forlorn wish to deceive and ‘pass’? The pomade and the polish. What dull thing here wants to shine? The inhaler and the mirror. What wants to mist and live? Two maps and two bars of soap. A directive and an assignment. The reading, stuck between tawdry and kooky, pulp and self-help. ‘Ramon George’ and ‘Right Guard’. ‘Deodorant’ – that must mean God-given – and ‘Sneyd’ – if not the mis-written ‘Sneya’ that bedevils the fellow’s hapless Canadian passport. The weird, badly wearing (not so much ‘quite worn’ as hopelessly unwearable) alias that would inevitably be followed by: ‘Would you mind spelling that for me?’ To anyone who’s read the book, meanwhile, they’re not so much things as characters. They are a dramatis personae. We know these people.

There are somehow no dead ends in Like a Fading Shadow, no inert matter, nothing that doesn’t speak or sing or clap its hands. The Dickinson that Muñoz Molina cites is the fantastic: ‘Nature is a haunted house – but Art – a house that tries to be haunted.’ There is no trying to be haunted here. It is a book that seems naturally in touch with itself – not artfully. It offers the various coherence of a planet, not a test tube, a population, not a focus group: ‘I began to realise,’ he writes,

that beauty, harmony, symmetry, are properties or spontaneous consequences of natural processes that exist without the need for an organising intelligence … the symmetry of a leaf or a tree or a body is self-organising, a virtue of the instructions encoded in its DNA … the highest aspiration of literature is not to improve an amorphous matter of real events through fiction, but to imitate the unpremeditated, yet rigorous order of reality, to create a scale model of its forms and processes.

At this, he is amazingly – perhaps even unprecedentedly – successful. It is an eerie and wonderful experience to read a novel put together in such an un-put-together way.

Each part, the James Earl Ray part and the Antonio Muñoz Molina part, is already bigger than itself, bigger than it needs to be. It is 110 per cent, or eight days a week, or something so heavy it falls through space. I don’t know of any book that so strongly communicates the feeling of being on the run in a foreign country, or of what it’s like to try and write a novel – and this one does both. It is like a pair of centrifuges or of radial – Catherine – wheels, shooting sparks in every direction. Sometimes the sparks meet or light one another, sometimes they go into benign darkness. That’s the book. (And that’s also why the actual subjects are neither here nor there to me. It’s the idea of things radiating out from two fixed points that matters. Like the diagrammed version of a cricket innings, if you’re familiar with what that looks like.) Nothing is touched on here that doesn’t become a trope: jazz, rivers, names, writing, spy fiction, disorientation, dilapidated streets, invisibility, bars, hair, rings, smoking, insomnia, the Bible, newspapers, the sound of Portuguese (‘the volume was much lower than in Spain, a muttered tone, familiar yet indecipherable, vowels that evaporated at the end of words’), noir, red-light districts, ‘the usual scenery of pawnshops, liquor stores and drunks’, being undercover … I could go on. You could pick up any one of those and tell the story – both stories – through it. To change the metaphor, it’s two decks of cards flipped together and then fountaining through the air. (That’s why in a sense murder doesn’t matter, and writing doesn’t matter; it’s not the sort of stupid vulgar book that says isn’t the murderer in a sense a writer – Ray wrote books and invented a whole crazy story about some mastermind called Raoul or Roual, who put him through his actions – and the writer a murderer? No. No no no. No.) The reader is trusted to turn the cards over, match them up, build a house with them, or two houses. Both haunted.

The first time I read Like a Fading Shadow, I was at it for two or three weeks. With hindsight, I see I was reading it ‘in real time’: the two weeks of Ray’s stay in Lisbon, plus the weekend of Muñoz Molina’s very first visit there, twenty years later, in 1988. I will have been enchanted by the life in it – the detailed, slowly evolving positions, the willingness to entertain possibilities – but perhaps brought short by the schema. For me it didn’t have the feel of a Spanish book: too sharp, too accurate, the short sentences, too much ‘there’ there, not the quilted rhetorical bounce. I didn’t feel lost, though, I always knew where I was. I looked forward to the alternations, I think especially to the Muñoz Molina sections. But then it’s possible for books to be too easy, to make themselves too available, and this one is written to take a lot of reading. Even the little sidesteps it allows itself are part of the ‘unpremeditated but rigorous’ weave of it. A Spanish sound engineer accompanies the jazz musician Chet Baker to Florence for a concert, forgets the rest of his life, and ends up staying there for months himself, alone; the young Muñoz Molina was fascinated and envious. The concept of a ‘winter in Florence’ was an early version of the subsequent Winter in Lisbon, just as the soundman was an avatar of Muñoz Molina, or of James Earl Ray; just as a senior Portuguese immigration official, interviewing Ray, is reminded of someone, and then he realises who.

This foreigner reminded him of the refugees he had seen in that same office when he was much younger, almost at the beginning of his long and honourable administrative career – the year was 1940 and it was the beginning of summer. They were people who had fled the cold countries, some dressed in rags but also with a dignified expression, others with the latest fashion, men and women, worldly and haggard, women with long cigarettes and red lipstick, imperious men who were obviously used to giving orders wherever they came from, but here, in the waiting room, felt desperate and powerless. They kept producing useless documents, some authentic, some falsified, and kept talking about departure dates for flights and ships.

With wonderful irony, the awful American assassin trying to get to Africa (and a racist colonial war – maybe one of his long-term plans, if he even had any) brings back memories of Jewish refugees (and writers: Koestler, Remarque) fleeing the Nazis. It’s only a page or half a page, and without being an indulgence it deepens the book. Lisbon has been here before. ‘The man kept his head down, and then glanced at the sides as if trying to find an exit that was not the door.’ Self-help, auto-hypnosis, plastic surgery, courses in mixology: all represent Ray’s attempts at aggrandisement, but they only reinforce the spooked, ugly, trashy and violent side of America. A longer section of several pages details supposed ‘sightings’ of the man all over the world. These are almost like Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines, and are obviously wonderful:

Someone also spotted him on a night bus from Houston to Mexico City, in a drugstore on the outskirts of Alliance, Ohio, in a barbershop in Stanford, Florida.

He had been staying in a small house outside Kansas City close to an airport. A small plane had taken him to Belle Glade, Florida, and then to Cuba.

According to an anonymous letter sent from Canada, his corpse was buried outside Mexico City. The letter included a diagram and a cross marking the location of the body.

This web of false trails again amplifies, almost multiplies the book. It in turn seems to be in touch with an adorable family joke, when Muñoz Molina on one occasion has left an energetic early printer on, and ‘my son came into the dining room with some amazing information: “There’s an invisible father writing in your room.”’

Somewhere among these parallels, these misconceptions or conceits or memories, these stories belonging to other people, these things that might have happened, but didn’t, is the endlessly frail line of things that do. Antonio Muñoz Molina goes to an event in honour of Borges’s friend Adolfo Bioy Casares, and meets his future wife. The Reverend Dr Martin Luther King gears himself up to give what will turn out to be his last speech. Before going to dinner with friends, he goes outside for a smoke. James Earl Ray stands braced feet apart in a bathtub in a scuzzy boarding house across from the Lorraine Motel. One of the lodgers is trying to get in. ‘The knocks on the bathroom door have ceased,’ it reads. And: ‘he barely had to pull the trigger.’ A storm has cleared the boggy southern air. ‘The most defining moments almost did not happen,’ Muñoz Molina notes. Even afterwards, it seems far from sure. The reactions are stupefying, priceless. The malign FBI see it, but don’t believe it. ‘One of the police officers hears the shot as he is watching King through his binoculars. At first, he does not believe what he has just seen and does not alert the others.’ ‘At Bessie Brewer’s boarding house, the deaf-mute from Room 6B and the drunk from 4B (who had tried to open the bathroom door just moments earlier) were watching television in her room and she did not understand why his face suddenly turned towards the window.’ A reverence to the great Antonio Muñoz Molina, ‘sharp and meek, like the eyesight of the deaf’, to borrow Frederick Seidel’s beautiful words about Antonioni. And to Camilo Ramirez, first time out, an exceptional translator.