Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías (Mala Indole, 1996) translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (1999) New Directions (2010) 57 pp
There is concern that New Directions is perceived as an “eat your vegetables” publisher. You might not enjoy them, but the books are healthful and good for you in the long run, even if they don’t exactly hit that spot that just craves giddy satisfaction. This is wrong: New Directions books can satisfy the most self-indulgent pleasure. For one thing, the funniest book I read last year was the wild The Literary Conference, by César Aira, and I was thoroughly charmed by Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. Okay, okay, so doubters are going to say, “Come on! One’s called The Literary Conference! I want excitement and intrigue and you’re telling me to read a book entitled The Literary Conference? And I don’t even know who this Lichtenburg is, but . . . really? You’re telling me to read these?” To which I respond, “Yes, I am. And I also recommend An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.” And now I’ve just read another New Directions book that belies any claim that New Directions books should be reserved for a more sober time in life. It’s another of their great Pearl Series, and it’s title shouldn’t stand in the way: Javier Marías’s Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico.
I was putting off reading this book because I have yet to tackle the third volume of Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow Trilogy. I have a stack of his books at home, unread because I feel I should finish what I’ve started first. Why haven’t I read the third book of a trilogy I highly recommend? Because it’s a big book, and I do most of my reading on a train. I still haven’t figured out how to pack it around with me. I’m sure, though, that once I begin it I won’t be sorry. Just as I wasn’t sorry when I finally opened up this Pearl due to its placement on the Best Translated Book Award longlist.
It was delightful to read the first lines and find myself back in Marías territory. An as yet unnamed narrator jumps into the action head first. How? By iterating and reiterating around a slightly abstract concept. In this case, wrath and fear of revenge.
No one knows what it is to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score.
. . . vengeance is extremely wearying and hatred tends to evaporate, it’s a fragile, ephemeral feeling, impermanent, fleeting, so difficult to maintain that it quickly gives way to rancor or resentment which are much more bearable, easier to retrieve, much less virulent and somehow less pressing, while hatred is always in a tearing hurry, always urgent.
Before we get even a sense of who’s speaking or why, Marías gives us around 5 pages of this delightful meandering. Of course, we may not know who is speaking or why, but all the time we’re getting a nice look at this speaker’s mind. For some time he has been running from someone whose sole purpose — he thinks — is to avenge some foul deed. From the title we know that this deed probably took place in Mexico . . . with Elvis. Soon, our suspicion is confirmed.
It all happened because of Mr. Presley, and that is not one of those idiotic lines referring to the record that was playing on the night we met, or to the time we were careless and went too far, or to the idol of the person who caused the problem by forcing us to go to a concert to seduce her or just to make her happy. It all happened because of Elvis Presley in person, or Mr. Presley, as I used to call him until he told me it made him feel like his father.
It isn’t a spoiler to explain a little bit about the mishap in Mexico, though I completely understand if some readers simply intrigued about the prospect of Marías writing about Elvis in Mexico want to turn their eyes here. For the others, this gives a glimpse at one theme Marías is playing with: the power of words, the power (or ills) of translation.
Elvis is making a movie, at least a part of which will be filmed in Mexico. However, Elvis “says he found out they pronounce the letter c differently in Spain and that’s how he wants to pronounce it.” Since our narrator happens to be the only person from Spain employed by the movie studio, he goes along to help Elvis with his accent (he’s going to sing one of the songs entirely in Spanish — err, but he hopes without the Mexican accent) and to act as a translator.
One night in a cantina, there’s a scuffle between Elvis and some shady characters. Our narrator gets caught in the middle:
“¿Qué ha dicho?” now it was Roland César’s turn to ask me. Their inability to understand each other was enraging them, a thing like that can really grate on your nerves in an argument.
“Que quién es usted para decir que nos vayamos.”
“Han oido, Julio, muchachos, me pregunta el gachupín que quién soy yo para ponerlos en la calle,” Montalbán answered without looking at me. I thought (if there was time for such a thought) that it was odd that he said I was the one asking who he was: it was Presley who was asking and I was only translating, it was a warning I didn’t pay attention to, or that I picked up on too late, when you relive what happened, or reconstruct it.
Bad Nature is funny (I hope that is apparent), but it is also surprisingly intense and psychologically acute. Marías trademark, nearly obsessive analyses are a part of that. Also, I think it is important to note that, for this reader, Esther Allen’s translation didn’t stand in the way at all. The prose flowed perfectly, allowing me to satisfy my craving in one sitting. I recommend this to any and all.
You have at least one reader who has read Lichtenberg (although not the novel about him), has read Aira (although not The Literary Conference), and thinks of New Directions not as a produce vendor but a confectioner. Yum yum.
I am another one who thoroughly enjoyed The Literary Conference, although I found I wasn’t in the right mood when I took my first stab at Aira’s How I Became A Nun. And, like you, my copy of volume three of the Marias trilogy is on the shelf awaiting the required amount of time to read it — I know from the first two that that is the biggest hurdle.
And just an hour ago, I started another New Directions volume, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, which has also made it to a number of translated works longlists.
I read this (gulped it down, more like) on a flight recently: it’s a fantastic little gem. Like you I thought it was funny, gripping…a perfect “trailer” for Marias. And I agree completely with your assessment that New Directions is a hallmark of quality AND enjoyment.
I have the exact same book/train quandry, which also militates against tackling some of the doorstops on the shelf. I’m sure I’ll get to Marias’ trilogy eventually though.
I’ve read all of Aira’s five translated fiction last year (The Hare is my favorite). And 7 books by Marias, including Bad Nature. And yes, the first 2 vols. of YFT. I’m a completist of the two future Nobel laureates.
Yes, I’m a New Directions junkie!
I have a question for you all. As I think you know, I run multiple book groups, so I have a lot of different readers to keep happy. Who do you think is more accessible–Aira or Marias? And which novel would you suggest one start with, keeping in mind that I have to please all the people all the time with my book selection. Thanks in advance!
Hi Liz, sorry it has taken me this long to respond to your comment:
First, certainly there are plenty of readers who would not be happy by either of these writers. Why? No idea! Why doesn’t everyone love “Daisy Miller” or everything by Edith Wharton? Some people are just crazy.
As for which is more accessible, probably this particular Marias title. It’s a clear story, quick, interesting, energetic. Aira’s books go all over the place, switching from genre to genre just as quickly as he switches from section to section. They are great, but I think it helps to be interested in the writing process when reading him since his books are often about how they are written. Fabulous, but not for everyone.
Hi Trevor. Thanks so much for this–it’s very helpful. I’ll read this one first and see if my groups can handle it. I like to get them out of their comfort zones occasionally–they like it, too–but I don’t want to torture them! I had to laugh at your comment “some people are just crazy”–I suppose that’s one way to describe people who don’t like the books you do! Thanks again for your help.
Let me know how it all turns out Liz!
I just finished this little book, Trevor. Wow. It really packs a punch. It will take me a while to think about it and digest it. You say in your review that it’s surprisingly intense. I’d say that’s extremely aptly put. Thanks for introducing me to Marias. I’d like to read more of his work, but need to rest up first.
Glad you liked it, Liz! At least, I think you liked it, though it seems you might be in a bit of a state of shock right now. New Directions has a great line up of Maris’s work, so you should certainly continue after a (brief) rest :) .
I definitely liked it, more than I thought I would, in fact. It’s just that there’s a lot there to ponder…The next one I may try is A Heart So White. I’ll let you know how it goes. Before then I have quite a few other titles to tackle, one of which, as I told KFC, is A Visit from the Goon Squad, so I can see what all the fuss is about!