Javier Marías: Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí (Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me)
The title comes from Act V of Richard III, where the various ghosts of his victims assail Richard. This is the second book for which Marías has used a Shakespeare quote as a title. The book, as Marías makes clear, is about deceit, about things not being what they seem, a favourite theme for the author. The hero/narrator is Victor Francés, a Madrid-based scriptwriter and sometime speechwriter and ghostwriter. At the start of the book he is having dinner with Marta Tellez. They have only met a couple of times and had planned to go out to dinner. However, she had forgotten that her husband would be travelling on business, so she has to stay at home to look after their two-year old son, Eugenio. Fortunately, she has some Irish sirloin in the fridge and cooks a meal for Victor. After she has put Eugenio to bed and after having briefly cleared up after the meal, they go to bed. They have just started undressing one another, when she starts to feel sick. She lies down to recover. During this period we follow Victor’s thoughts in some details. He switches on the TV (with the sound down) and watches an American film starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. (In an afterword, Marías says that many readers (including me) thought that the film was Double Indemnity. There are, in fact, three other films featuring the pair and the one he was thinking of was the appropriately named Remember the Night.) While watching TV, Eugenio appears. His mother is too ill to notice him so Victor takes him back to bed and makes sure he is asleep. When he returns, she is still ill and suddenly asks him to hold her. He does. She gives a shudder and dies.
He is now in someone else’s house – he doesn’t know the name or whereabouts of the husband – in the middle of the night with a dead woman and a two year old child. After a bit of sleuthing, he finds both the husband’s name and whereabouts and phones up the London hotel where he is staying. However, the hotel has no record of the man. It is only when he hangs up that he realises that the husband, in typical Spanish fashion, will have registered with his full name, i.e. first name last name mother’s maiden name and that a British hotel will have him registered under what they consider his last name, which is, in fact, his mother’s maiden name. However Victor is too scared to phone back. Meanwhile the phone rings again and he hears the voice of a man on the answering machine who seem to be another lover of the dead woman, seeking an immediate assignment. Victor finally leaves, taking the tape from the answering machine (he wants the family to think that this man is responsible), the paper with the phone number of the London hotel and Marta’s bra. He changes the channel of the TV, to one showing Chimes at Midnight. The two films will be mentioned throughout the book, not least because the latter film, though set in England, was filmed mainly in Madrid. Victor makes his escape, though he is seen by a couple having a row outside the front door of the building.
He naturally worries about the child and returns the following day in a taxi to see if anyone has entered the building but is unable to verify this. He is seen by a woman who, he later founds out, is the sister of the dead woman. He again phones the husband and this time gets through but hangs up at once. As we will later learn, the husband already knows by this time. The following day he sees a death announcement in the paper. He goes to the funeral, in dark glasses, but is barely noticed.
The rest of the book follows two story lines. The first is his attempt to get to know the family. His best friend is a man who had published a few novels many years ago but is now unknown to all but the cognoscenti. Like Victor, he does other writing. He knows of Marta’s father, a man involved in politics, and Victor asks him if he can help him to get to know the father. Here another deceit occurs, when Victor, assuming the name of his friend, does some work for the father, helping to write a speech for a self-important minister, known by various titles, including the English titles of The Only One and Only the Lonely. After first meeting the father, he is invited to a lunch with other members of the family, including the dead woman’s sister, Luisa, and husband. When he later follows the sister, who sees him and when Eugenio recognises him and Luisa remembers seeing him outside the building, Luisa guesses that he is the man who had been with her sister when she died. She tells her brother-in-law but the meeting between the two men does not go at all as expected, either by Victor or the reader, with more deceit entering into play.
However, Marías throws in a another sub-plot, Victor’s ex-wife Celia. Though divorced, the two keep in touch, though there has been little contact recently. When Victor’s friend tells him that Celia has been seen hanging around cafés frequented by prostitutes, Victor decides to investigate. Driving through the prostitute area, he sees a prostitute who looks remarkably like Celia. He stops to pick her up. She gives her name as Victoria but he is still not sure whether she is Celia or not, even after spending some time with her. After having dropped her off, he phones Celia and she eventually answers, confirming that it is unlikely that she is Victoria. However, when he asks to come round, she refuses, as she is with somebody. Victor, ever persistent, does not leave the matter there.
Despite the fairly complicated plot and the occasional improbable twist (would a man really not be able to distinguish his ex-wife from a prostitute?), Marías once again gives us a superbly written story, with complexities, twists and a variety of interesting asides. Some readers might find Marías’ paragraphs and, indeed, his explanations too long (it takes well over a hundred pages to recount the story of Marta’s death and Victor’s reaction) but this is the skill of the author, as he builds up the story and the tension that Victor feels, as well as throwing in his authorial asides on matters ranging from language (Victor criticises the use of Spanish of most of the protagonists, including his own) to the two films to the geography of Madrid. A witty, intelligent and unpredictable novel that confirms Marías as one Spain’s foremost writers.
First published in Spanish 1994 by Anagrama
First published in English 1997 by Harcourt Brace