Mystery woman

TOMORROW IN THE BATTLE THINK ON ME by Javier Maras trs Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill pounds 8.99
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The Independent Culture
Javier Marias is a best-selling novelist in his native Spain, in Germany and Holland. But then, in any of these countries, translations constitute anything from 14 to 40% of book sales. Here they reach no more than 4% and Javier Maras is a minority taste.

He ruffled a considerable number of feathers with All Souls, a close- to-the-bone account of his years as a lecturer in Spanish literature at Oxford. A Heart So White, even here a critical success, was sparked by a television viewing of Macbeth. His new book is drawn from the scene in Richard III where the ghosts parade past to curse the King and Chimes at Midnight ring out as a death knell for Marta, the woman who dies in the opening chapter but who lives on, both in her family's memory and as the spirit which haunts the book.

For spirits are essentially moveable creatures, as are the themes of authenticity and identity which reassert themselves here. Even the narrator, the man who is with Marta at the time of her sudden death, is a shifting personage. A scriptwriter endlessly writing television treatments that don't get made or ghosting soaps that go out under collective credits, he substitutes for his friend Ruiberriz, a politician's speechwriter, whenever his appearance fits the bill. Assimilated into a nocturnal existence, he becomes increasingly unclear about whether the prostitute he frequents is his former wife, whether the taxi driver he uses to return to the scene of what feels like his crime suspects him of being a murderer rather than a witness; whether Marta's husband may not, under one of his three names, be the assassin.

It seems significant that the feminist outcry which accompanies the publication of each of Maras's novels - particularly about why a "bad" woman (in this case, the adulteress Marta) has to get murdered in each, and why the "good" woman is always named Luisa - has this time focused on Marta's two-year-old son. As a child he is presumed an innocent, but is there ever an innocent witness any more than an innocent victim? By constantly drawing the reader into moral quandries, the author questions our involvement as passive collaborators - and evokes passionate responses about the "realism" of the narrator's abandoning of the toddler to the corpse of his mother.

Yet realism is emphatically not what this novel is about. Partly as a deliberate reaction to the kitchen-sink fiction that became the desired norm after the death of Franco, partly because he still displays the cosmopolitan origins that formed him, and finally because his own voice is filled with digressions and reflections, Maras's writing expresses the belief that our view of the world depends on its narrators. He heightens stream-of- consciousness into an extended dimension. The protagonists appear less as determining their own lives than as awaiting the teller of their own particular tale; with every slant the tale turns around another spiral.

By its close, the allusions inscribed to Marta in her death throes (to the "clumsy fingers, fingers like piano keys") conflate with those of aggressor and victim ("her eyes still wore my face and the dusky night"), and the reader shares the narrator's continually revised sense of uncertainty ("I don't know if that thought is mine or Marta Tellez's, or if it is just a memory"). The narrative runs like a psychological thriller with macabre and comic interludes: the narrator handles it as a master of artistry and ambiguity. The one authentic relationship is not between any of the protagonists in the intricate body of the text, but between author and reader.