To write fiction is to see the world through the eyes of another person, to hear it through somebody else’s ears. It is the audacity to believe you can know the secrets of another mind, no matter who it is – an assassin, a fugitive, a man leaning on a balcony at dusk, one or two minutes before a bullet shatters his jaw and pierces his spine, a musician who closes his eyes to play the piano.
Like A Fading Shadow, taking its title from Psalm 102: 11 (“My days are like a fading shadow; and I am withered like grass”), is my fifth Antonio Muñoz Molina book after Sepharad, A Manuscript of Ashes, In Her Absence, and In the Night of Time. These previous books have been translated by a roll-call of the elite of Spanish-English translation: Margaret Sayers Peden (Sepharad), Esther Allen (In Her Absence) and Edith Grossman (In the Night of Time and Manuscript of Ashes). Here the translator, Camilo A. Ramirez, was new to me, and it took me a few pages to get into the voice, although any issues soon passed.
The novel is told in three interwoven strands, all based around visits to Lisbon, two historic visits in particular:
Perhaps there is no better beginning than an impersonal statement of fact. Thus literature can claim or mimic the objectivity of the world. That is why my favourite first line is that of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education; it marks the beginning of a trip and reads like an administrative record or logbook entry: “in front of the Quai St Bernard, the Ville de Monterrey, which was just about to start, was puffing great whirlwinds of smoke. It was six o’ clock on the morning of the 15th of September, 1840.”
At eleven o’clock on the night of 1 January 1987, the Luisitania Express left Madrid Atocha Station heading towards Lisbon. On May 8, 1968, at one thirty in the morning, a traveler in his forties, wearing a dark suit and a raincoat, arrived at the Lisbon airport on a flight from London.
This putative opening actually comes halfway through the book. The novel actually begins:
I awake inside his mind; frightened, disoriented from so much reading and researching. As if my eyes had opened in an unfamiliar room. Angst from the dream lingers. I had committed a heinous crime or was being pursued and condemned despite my innocence. Someone was pointing a gun at me and I could not run or defend myself. I could not move. Before thoughts can fully form, the secret novelist inside us all is already plotting stories. The room in shadows was concave and the ceiling low like a cave or basement or the skull that holds his brain, his feverish mind, exhausted from reading and solitary thinking, with all his memories, his physical features, the images of his life, his heart palpitations, the propensity to believe he had contracted a fatal disease, cancer, an angina, the routine of hiding and fleeing.
I woke up and for a moment I forgot where I was and I was like him, or he himself, because I was having a dream more his than mine. I was in shock that I could not recognize the room where I had fallen asleep just two hours earlier; was not able to remember the position of the bed in relation to the window and other furniture, or my location in a space that was suddenly unknown; I even struggled trying to remember what city I was in. This probably happened to him often, after sleeping in so many places while on the run, thirteen months and three weeks, five countries, fifteen cities, two continents, not to mention all the nights in different motels and boarding houses, the nights curled, shivering against a tree, or under a bridge, or in the backseat of the car, or on a bus that smells of tobacco and plastic and arrives at the underground parking of a station at three in the morning, or that night he was so anxious, flying for the first time, paralyzed by fear, looking out through the small oval window into that dark abyss, the surface of the ocean shining like wet ink under the moonlight. (He would fly overnight once more, crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction; this time in handcuffs and fetters; dozing off against the window, in a dream where the handcuffs transformed into vines and the weight of the fetters was the mud where his feet were sinking.)
The him in this sentence is James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. His identity emerges only gradually in the pages of the novel but in reality any reader is likely to know before opening the first page of the book or if not to discover it by googling the clues — which itself raises interesting issues for me on reading in the internet age.
Following the killing, Ray, who was already on the run from prison since July 1967, fled the scene, first to Canada, then to London and, from May 8 – 16, 1968, Lisbon, from where he had hoped to find sanctuary in a pro-white supremacist African state, perhaps as a mercenary.
In one strand of the novel, Muñoz Molina attempts to reconstruct Ray’s time in Lisbon, and his flight generally. The internet makes it easy for him to find out detailed facts:
[I]t only takes a few seconds online to access the archives containing detailed accounts of almost everything he did, places he visited . . . even the names of women who slept with him or shared a drink at a bar . . . [or] the brand of salted crackers left open and half-eaten in a rented room in a boarding house in Atlanta where his name never made it to the register because the owner was too drunk to ask for it.
And yet that tells us nothing about the person himself:
It is amazing how much you can learn about a person and still never truly know him, because he never said what was most important: a dark hole, a blank space; a mug shot, the rough lines of a facial composite based on disjointed testimonies and vague memories.
Ray in particular was something of an enigma. He was perhaps the most wanted man in the world at the time, but his very anonymity (and the technological limitations on police work at the time) made it relatively easy for him to evade capture.
He was obsessed with spy literature – when eventually arrested in June 1968 at Heathrow airport, he was found with two spy novels, Adam Hall’s Ninth Directive and Cameron Rougvie’s Tangier Assignment, with Bond-like protagonists, and one of his many aliases was Eric Starvo Galt based on Bond’s enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
He was also in possession of Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics and Self-Fulfillment, a forerunner of Tony Robbins style positive thinking and the ideas of NLP, and a pamphlet on hypnosis, and the author effectively uses these books to create a picture of Ray’s mental processes to add to the detailed accounts available of his life.
The novel’s second strand has Muñoz Molina look back on another historical visit to Lisbon by a rather unsympathetic character with multiple identities — the young Muñoz Molina himself.
In late 1986, about to turn 31, he was leading two double lives — a bachelor during the week and family man only at weekends, his wife, a teacher, looking after two infant children (Antonio a 3yo and Arturo, a 1 month old) in Madrid whereas he worked in Granada. And during the week, leading a double life as an office bureaucrat during the day and a partying bohemian and jazz fan at night as well as an emerging author.
I was a father and a husband, and also a foolish adolescent, an apprentice in the art of the novel and a bureaucrat. I was undercover all right, but was I infiltrating the underworld or City Hall.
. . .
Equally incompetent at marriage and fleeting affairs; as ill-equipped for an administrative job and family life as I was for the methodical chaos of bar life, I kept on retreating into an intimate paralysis fed almost entirely by fictions.
He was working on the novel that was to be his breakthrough — Winter in Lisbon — a modernist take on noir with characters who refer to Casablanca but seem constrained to follow the plot of The Maltese Falcon, with Lisbon standing in for San Francisco and a stolen Cezanne painting the dingus. An excerpt from the English translation:
On the Gran Via, by the cold gleaming windows of the Telefonica building, he went over to a kiosk to buy cigarettes. As I watched him walk back, tall, swaying, hands sunk in the pockets of his large open overcoat with the collar turned up, I realized that he had that strong air of character one always finds in people who carry a past, as in those who carry a gun. These aren’t vague literary comparisons: he did have a past, and he kept a gun.
One key break through when writing the novel was prompted by The Great Gatsby:
I had been reading The Great Gatsby and was impressed by the narrative voice and gaze of Nick Carraway. Gatsby was not a hero whose exploits Nick happened to witness: he was a hero precisely because Nick was observing him. His legend was not in his person or his acts but in the perspective of another person; his ultimate ambiguity, that blank space at the centre of his character and most of his biography, was the result of missing information . . . everything that was unknown or left unsaid about Gatsby added to his persona and deepened his mystery like the negative space that on paper or canvas strengthens a composition.
. . .
My mistake, all that time, had been to try to fill every gap with unnecessary details, fill all the space in the story like a mediocre painter fills a whole canvas or a pretentious musician leaves no space for silence.
But at a certain point, his imagination failed him and compelled him to visit Lisbon to see the place where he had planned to set his story:
I don’t think I even got to put a new sheet of paper in the typewriter before realising that if the novel was to continue I had no choice but to travel to Lisbon.
And on January 1, 1987, despite having a newborn (four week old) and three-year old child, he left his family to make a brief visit to Lisbon, his first ever overseas trip, one he has described elsewhere as a “scouting trip.”
Unfortunately for the English-language reader, Sepharad rather than Winter in Lisbon was his breakthrough novel here, and the latter book although translated by Sonia Soto, is out of print, which slightly diminishes the effect of this strand of the novel. I am indebted to one of my favourite blogs, Tony’s Reading List (who is also chairing our MBI Shadow Jury) for an English-language review of the book, albeit he read the Spanish original, as well as this academic article on the novel from Literature/Film Quarterly: “We’ll Always Have Lisbon”: Cinematic Intertextuality in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s “El invierno en Lisboa” (here).
This visit by Muñoz Molina to Lisbon was very brief and, per the Literature/Film Quarterly article, unsurprisingly didn’t actually yield any great insights into Lisbon itself:
We find ourselves in a rather vague geography . . . His Lisbon. as the author admits, is the result of a sort of “location scouting” while writing the novel. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, there is no here here.
But the author has clearly been to Lisbon many times since, and in Like a Fading Shadow creates a very effective portrait of perhaps my favourite city in Europe, certainly the most characterful. He is particularly taken with the various statues in Lisbon, notably that kings on horseback, such as King José in the middle of Praça do Comércio.
Four years later, now established as an author following the success of Winter in Lisbon, and father of three children (Elena was born in 1989), Muñoz Molina made another brief and pivotal trip to Lisbon for a book tour, the key being not the trip itself but the return to Madrid, where that night he began an affair with the journalist Elvira Lindo which led to him separating from his wife.
The third strand of the book is written in the near present. In 2012, Muñoz Molina visited Lisbon again, with Lindo who is addressed as “you” in the book, to see his second son Arturo, now living in Lisbon and celebrating his twenty-sixth birthday. It was this visit that prompted him to recall Ray’s period of refuge in Lisbon, to reflect on the nature of fiction, and to write this novel.
He also visited Memphis itself where, when seeing many of the objects found in Ray’s possession, he thinks:
Objects say what we don’t; they reveal in public what we would prefer to keep secret. What they say without words makes fiction irrelevant.
But one still wants to imagine. Literature is the desire to dwell inside the mind of another person, like an intruder in a house, to see the world through someone else’s eyes, from the interior of those windows where no one ever seems to peek out. It’s impossible but one does not renounce the optical illusion.
This trip and a return visit to Lisbon in 2014 to complete the novel, and from which the opening of the book is taken, were also documented in photographs by Elvira Lindo (see here).
Muñoz Molina makes the slightly odd decision to write the last chapter of the novel not from Ray’s perspective but from Martin Luther King’s, in the mind of “a man leaning on a balcony at dusk, one or two minutes before a bullet shatters his jaw and pierces his spine.” I am not convinced this part worked, and the author seems to use it in part to repeat the allegations that King was actually having an affair while staying at the motel where he was shot, but it does nod towards what was to be King’s last ever speech, one uncannily prophetic given what happened the next day, and which I will reproduce in part to finish my review:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.
Overall, this was certainly a stimulating work, as shown by the length of my review. However, I wasn’t particularly convinced that the part about the author as a thirty-one year-old really linked with the story of Ray, and the musings on writing fiction are a little too scattered throughout the novel to cohere.