I picked up Javier Marias's "false novel" A Dark Back in Time on the basis of my enjoyment of two earlier novels - All Souls (1992) and A Heart so White (1995). My memory of these two novels was sufficiently vague for me not to be warned off by a rather enigmatic back-cover description. Of All Souls, I could only recall a university novel in the loosest terms; A Heart so White had a more conventional plot and I enjoyed the bookish narrator, with his marital problems and his overshadowing father. A Dark Back in Time promises to play with narrative structures - the back cover refers to "a man named Javier Marias" and one gets the idea that the writer will be somehow writer, narrator and character in the text. Indeed, this is the case. Fundamentally, Dark Back explores the historical and personal material that inspired All Souls and in that sense deliberately inhabits that space that writers normally take trouble to avoid - that is, the 'shadowland' where fiction and reality meet. Various readers in Oxford, it seems, have taken the time to see themselves in Marias's Oxford, and this prompts the writer/narrator/character to ponder the various odd coincidences that make the improbably real, and the real improbable.
A very long anecdote, or historical episode, concerning the ill-fated English writer Wilfred Ewart (killed by a stray bullet one New Years Eve in Mexico on his hotel balcony, having survived the trenches of World War One) illustrates this point. As one academic writer has put it, 'in his reconstruction of Ewart's life, Marias raises questions about authorial reliability and textual stability' (Karen E Berg, Javier Marias's postmodern praxis: Humor and interplay between reality and fiction in his novels and essays). What led Ewart to his fate? And of the various historical fragments that describe what happened to him, how can go beyond speculation as to exactly what happened, particularly when contradictory newspaper reports of the time just lead to more questions? How can any narrative avoid the illusion of certainty?
It reads, in some strange way, like an extended Borges short story, complete with the tone of measured incredulity. This novel is not for the reader who likes to be hooked by anything like a conventional plot; I found myself reading on more out of stubborn determination than anything like enjoyment or even enlightenment - those there were flashes of both of these on occasion. I blame myself, by the way, for not quite being up to the task. When Marias gets a little more direct in terms of themes, it's in the moving story of an older brother he never knew, who died in childhood and yet remained a living presence throughout his parents' lives. And he also directly tackles the theme suggested by the title and illustrated in the above points - the Shakespearean allusion to time:
'I often move through what I've called in several books "the other side of time, its dark back," taking the mysterious expression from Shakespeare to give a name to the kind of time that has not existed, the time that awaits us and also the time that does not await us and therefore does not happen, or only happens in a sphere that isn't precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may - who knows - be found' (p.301).
This may not be what Marias means, but as a writer, I take it that the near-to experiences one explores in writing as fiction may in some senses be part of this 'dark back' - as alternative selves and experiences go forth beyond the writer's immediate life. And so it happens that people see themselves in writer's work in stories writers have merely imagined, and yet which in some non-temporal place, are yet true and based in as much fact as any life lived, or invented.
Dark Back in Time - a novel, of sorts, for fans of Javier Marias - to get a glimpse into the thinking behind the craft of his writing. I'm just in awe of a writer who must command such respect from his publisher that he can write an anti-novel that finds its way into print and into my nervous hands.