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"No doubt about it," writes Jesse Sublett of Javier Marías' When I Was Mortal, "this is fairly odd stuff, and the patterns of quirks pile up like clues in a baroque murder mystery."
When I Was Mortalby Javier Marías
New Directions, 163pp., $14.95
You don't have to be some kind of literary genius to realize something odd is going on in the work of Spanish author Javier Marías, whose collection of short stories, When I Was Mortal, sold more than 300,000 copies in its Spanish editions. The most obvious thing about Marías' writing (A Heart So White, All Souls, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me) is his fondness for long, complex sentences. It's all easily digested, however, because their elegant structure is composed of simple but elliptical phrases, looped together in delicate strands that tend to amuse and compel, like the cadences of an eccentric but fascinating conversationalist. The stories in this anthology often weave narratives around a single event, meticulously detailed ("Broken Binoculars"), or even a photograph ("Spear Blood"). No doubt about it, this is fairly odd stuff, and the patterns of quirks pile up like clues in a baroque murder mystery. The narrator's wife is often named Luisa. It's not unusual for her to be taken ill. Conversations become bizarre, self-contained adventures. Eavesdropping is epidemic.
Marías is a professional translator in addition to being an author, which might explain his fascination for the nuances of expression, not just words and phrases themselves, but the spaces between. More than anything else, his narrators are concerned with perception. They want to know why someone says something a certain way, what facial expressions really mean. In "Spear Blood," the narrator is haunted by the photograph of a murdered friend, apparently killed with an antique spear during sex with a prostitute. In addition, Marías enjoys writing from the perspective of the dead, as in the title story, narrated by a murdered spouse who enumerates his own infidelities with cool nonchalance. While detailing the events leading up to his demise, however, the more interesting aspect is his lack of bitterness at his own betrayal and murder.
"Broken Binoculars" is about a man at a racetrack who meets a bodyguard. The two men become acquainted after the bodyguard accidentally breaks the narrator's binoculars. The bodyguard offers to share his own binoculars with the narrator and before long, begins to share his point of view. It turns out the bodyguard is involved in a plot to assassinate the wealthy and powerful man who employs him to guard his life. The races unfold with an increasing sense of dread and intrigue, as the bodyguard contemplates the task ahead of him, wondering whether the job of killing will fall to him personally or his comrades.
Some of Marías' stories have trick endings or leave themselves open to alternate interpretations. How wide is his mischievous streak? In his novel Dark Back of Time, it is mentioned that the book's narrator, whose name is Javier Marías, has become king of a Caribbean island called Redonda. A Web search turned up a site purporting to belong to the Redonda Foundation (www.redonda.org), which states that there is actually a dispute involving Javier Marías' sovereignty over Redonda. The text there calls him an "impostor," which turns out to be one of the author's favorite words. I'm not even sure if Redonda exists. What I am sure of is that Marías is a damn fine writer, and despite some uneven selection quality, When I Was Mortal is a damn fine introduction to his fascinating work.