Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
The Harvill Press, 1998
Softcover, 311 pages
An Inconvenient Death
First published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama in 1995, Javier Marías’s ninth novel (third to be published in English translation) is attracting word-of-mouth attention a decade after its release in English. Last winter, I received recommendations to read it from two friends who do not know one another, both of whose tastes in literature I respect.
Now I pass the recommendation on to you.
While Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me is not a simple read, it is a compelling one. Written for the most part without paragraph breaks for dialogue, the book comprises more than 300 pages of fairly dense text, to all of which the reader needs to pay close attention or find herself marooned mid-page wondering where she is. Not only does Marías create a stream of consciousness for his narrator, his narrator also invents them for other characters in the book—and then refers back to those invented imaginings, leaving the inattentive reader to need suddenly to start flipping back through pages and pages of text to find where the perspective has changed.
Fortunately, attentive reading of Marías’ writing brings innumerable rewards.
One of the reasons this novel is so compelling is its set-up. Here is the opening sentence:
No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember.
With this thought, the narrator, Victor Francés, embarks on a serious (well, perhaps at times only semi-serious) reflection on the host of ways in which one may die at an ignoble and perhaps even embarrassing moment in one’s life, and how the news of such a death may be greeted by the people who knew the now-deceased, depending on how they felt about that person.
We learn, very gradually, detail by detail, how Francés (just now it seems from the way the story is recounted, just a bit earlier this evening) was about to make love to a beautiful young woman, Marta Téllez —how they patiently passed the time until her small son finally went to sleep, how they made their way to the bedroom and into the bed, how they began to undress one another, and then how she began to feel unwell. Soon afterward, she died.
This has turned into a very difficult situation for Francés. He knew the woman very little; her husband is away in England: What is he to do? Whom should he notify? He’d prefer to simply flee, but if he leaves the apartment without telling someone, what will happen to the child?
The convoluted set of circumstances that are precipitated by the death of Marta Téllez turn Tomorrow in the Battle into an intriguing mystery novel that is also a poetic and philosophical exploration of (among numerous other issues) the perplexing forms that life, death, memory and love can take— not to mention the ins and outs of Spanish government bureaucracy.
Tomorrow in the Battle is a book that focuses our attention on connections. Francés is obsessed, for example, with the relationship that he imagines exists between people who have slept with the same people – with his connection, therefore, to Marta’s husband, and with his relationship to the men who have been with his own wife since their marriage came apart.
It is a book about the reliability of memory: at one point Francés—now not having slept for several days—encounters a prostitute who resembles his ex-wife, whom he hasn’t seen in months, and he begins to wonder if perhaps it is his wife. He offers her money, she takes it, he engineers a quiet moment in his vehicle so that she may earn the money he has given her—still not certain if it is Celia or not.
And it is a book, of course, about vengeance and accountability and—less predictably—the vicissitudes of fate.
Tomorrow in the Battle is an engrossing read, not only because of our curiosity to find out what happens next, but because of the compelling nature of Marías’ use of detail—the slow way he reveals each thought, each scene. Immersed in the narrator’s increasingly edgy stream of consciousness we lose, as he obviously has, the ability to tell the difference between the significant and the insignificant detail:
His [Déan’s, Marta’s husband’s] face grew even more sombre, his energetic chin turned away as if in flight, his beer-coloured eyes glinting wildly as they had when he had left the restaurant and Téllez [Marta’s father] wouldn’t let him pay the bill, but we were not lit now by the greenish light of a storm, only by electric light and, outside, fog which, in the city, looks yellowish or whitish or reddish, it depends.
Marías has been acclaimed by reviewers around the world, and he has been tagged for a future Nobel Prize in the pages of Guardian Books. His novels have won nine international awards, been translated into 34 languages, and sold at least five million copies.
I think he should be even better known. So read this book. If you like it, pass the word along.