The television broadcasts a film with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck while Marta lies immovable on her double bed, dying.
Her son, who would not easily fall asleep, lies in his wooden cot under aeroplanes strung on thread just above his bed. They sway lightly in the air, reminding our narrator, Victor, of his own childhood planes.
Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword.
He is not well acquainted with Marta. He has come for dinner, and what he hopes will follow, while her husband is away in London. Surely he did not expect his evening to transpire as it has. In the course of this improbable event, of a woman dying while he is in her bedroom, he pauses to reflect.
….everything seems as nothing to us, everything becomes compressed and seems as nothing to us once it is over, then we always feel that we were not given enough time.
For awhile, he wonders if she has not in fact died. He returns to her apartment building, gazing at the windows on the fifth floor which belong to her apartment, hoping that perhaps she simply fell unconscious; he hopes that someone has taken care of her son whom he left sleeping in the cot.
But no, Marta has in fact died, and so the title’s implication expands to more than merely our narrator. We think on Marta’s widowed husband, Dean, and her son, Eugenio, her father, Juan, and her sister, Luisa.
Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal; and let fall thy lance.
He suffers guilt, but also self examination. He is a ghostwriter, and therefore used to being behind the scene. He often refers to himself as being nobody.
Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, when I was mortal, and let fall thy pointless lance. Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow, let me be lead within thy bosom and at a bloody battle end thy days. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, despair and die.
There are all sorts of battles going on. The ones on television where aeroplanes on film are fighting in battle, the ones of Victor’s own making revealed to us as he reviews his life.
A large portion of the novel switches from the death of Marta to his divorce from Celia, with whom he was married for only three years. One evening, he questions if the prostitute he visits could be her. They look so similar, but he is uncertain, and even after he leaves her, and calls his ex-wife who is at home, he cannot be sure that she has not brought a customer home with her.
His battles are many, and tortuous. But, he is not the only one who endures them.
The novel ends with Marta’s husband and Victor in confrontation. Dean reveals his own battle within the details of his trip to London while his wife lay dying, unbeknownst to him, in Victor’s arms.
And how little remains of each individual in time, useless as slippery snow, how little trace remains of anything, and how much of that little is never talked about, and, afterwards one remembers only a tiny fraction of what was said, and then only briefly: while we travel slowly towards our dissolution merely in order to traverse the back or reverse side of time, where one can no longer keep thinking or keep saying goodbye: “Goodbye laughter and goodbye scorn. I will never see you again, nor will you see me. And goodbye ardour, goodbye memories.”
It is a tragic novel, one which examines relationships thoroughly and deeply, as well as the individuals who live in them. After reading it, I see once again why Javier Marias has become one of my favorite writers.
Thank you to Richard and Stu who host Spanish Lit Month in July. Find another review at Tony’s Reading List.