In the Battle
Think on Me
Margaret Jull Costa
I did not want to know anything more about Marta, she was dead and curiosity does not affect the dead, it is not a feeling that touches them, despite all those films and novels and biographies that are investigations into precisely that, the lives of those who are no longer living, it's just a hobby, you cannot talk to the dead and that's all there is to it.
Our novel opens with Victor Francés in bed with another man's wife. They are about to perform the beast with two backs when she turns on her side, feeling a little ill and, in a few minutes, she's dead.
Now in a similar situation you and I would probably call the cops, make a clean breast of it, and hope for the best. Not Victor Francés. He sets up breakfast for her two-year old son in the next room --- it's 2 a.m. --- tries to call Marta's husband (but when he finally gets through, hangs up without saying a word), watches part of a television program, and goes out the door carrying, among other things, her bra, her husband's telephone number, and the tape from her answering machine.Over the next few days, Victor cleverly arranges to get himself invited to lunch with Marta's father, her sister, and her widower. He then follows sister Luisa around Madrid. She is shepherding Eduardo, the two-year-old that Victor met early on the night of his unforgettably unconsummated passion. At once point, he forgets to move quickly enough, and Marta's sister sees him. What's worse, the two-year-old recognizes him. "Ictor, Ictor," he says.
§ § §
All this in the hands of a lesser writer would be a low-class Shakespearian comedy of errors, but Marías is no half-assed scribbler. The story is luciously plotted even though we may think we are on but a leisurely ramble. Because of the strange characters, most of the scenes --- there about ten in number --- are jam-packed with tension.
Even so, the author is not shy about going on extended meditations on such enjambments as ghosts, horses in the city of Madrid, the roots of certain Anglo-Saxon words (in reference to different men having congress with the same woman), hotels and restaurants in London, sleep and dreams, the role of change in our lives, and, most of all, death.
Some critics have compared him to Proust, but, better, Marías is a 21st Century doppelgänger of Henry James --- complete with extended mental acrobatics filled with clotted monologues. These come, primarily, from the chatty mind --- the very chatty mind --- of the author/narrator. They also, at different points, erupt from the mouths of Marta's rambling Polonius-like father, as well as the prolix King of Spain --- referred to as The Only One --- and, in a grand finale, from Marta's widowed and somewhat deranged husband, Deán.
§ § §
Once he has us, Marías knows he has us, and will subject us to these long soliloquies, which, just to keep us on edge, will often offer a looney aside, a throw-away which tempers the whole, upsets all our preconceptions about where the novel is going, and even how it is going to get there. Our demi-hero Victor, at lunch with Téllez --- Marta's father --- the widower Deán and sister Luisa, sips wine and fades into the woodwork while they drift into a steamy argument about who is to care for the two-year-old now that Marta is no more. Meanwhile, the character who last saw Marta alive and breathing and presumably on the steamy edge of passion is sitting right there in their midst, knowing but unquestioned.
They had now completely forgotten about me, at least Téllez had, for he no longer thought it necessary to bring me up to date on earlier events, old people don't make many distinctions, that is, they don't tend to consider all the elements of a situation, especially if the situation is an awkward one, only the main ones...
Marías is not only doing a Henry James, he's also spinning a Shaggy Dog story, one that goes on and on, much to the irritation of not a few of the literary low-lifes who call themselves "critics."
Late in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, after going on about his ex-wife Celia, and how they parted, Victor tells us,
I gave her money via a monthly cheque delivered by courier (we both saw his face, but not each other's), not only because I was the one who had left and had the larger salary, but because the more experienced partner tends to feel responsible for the less experienced one, even when they are apart, they still fear for them. Now I still send her a cheque, legally, and I sometimes give her money in person, a helping hand when she needs it, like someone giving pocket money to a child, though she may not need it for very much longer. I don't usually like talking about Celia.
This last sentence, coming at the end of a page and a half discussion of him and Celia, how they parted, is a delicious aperçu --- typical of the author, willing to play not only with the characters, but, most charmingly, with the reader.
§ § §
If one were foolish enough to try to find a theme in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, one should have to look no further than the title. It's a quote from Shakespeare's Richard III, and appears, a Wagnerian motif, all over the place. It turns up in its most complete form on the night Victor arrives home having just concluded a tête-à-tête with a prostitute. He has --- through some bizarre logic of his own, making the reader wonder about his sanity --- decided that his ex-wife Celia is the prostitute, in disguise. It is at this point that we get to partake in a rather balmy meditation on how people living alone will turn on the TV upon arriving at night because
it's what I normally do when I get home late, I suppose most of us who live alone do, those of us who are therefore no one, we watch to see what had happened in the world during our absence, as if we were not always absent from the world.
"Those of us who are ... no one." This is a typical, and rich, throw-away line, one that might lead a reader --- one who is willing to overlook all the shaggy-dogs that Marías has set out for us --- to conclude that this Must Somehow Be of Some literary Significance. The TV program is, of course, Richard III:
The king was being haunted that very night by those closest to him, who were reproaching him with their deaths and calling down misfortunes on him in the battle that would take place the following day, they were saying terrible things in the sad voices of those who have been betrayed or killed by the person they loved: "Tomorrow in the battle think on me," the men, the woman and the children said to him one after the other, "and fall thy edgeless sword: despair and die!" "Let me sit heavy on thy soul tomorrow, let me be lead within thy bosom and in a bloody battle end thy days: let fall thy pointless lance." "Think on me when I was mortal: despair and die," they repeated one after the other, the children and the woman and the men.
"I remember those words clearly, especially those spoken to him by the woman, the last to address him, his ghost wife whose cheeks streamed with tears: 'That wretched Ann thy wife,' she said to him, 'that never slept a quiet hour with thee, now fills thy sleep with perturbations. Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword: despair and die!'"
Now if you are like me, or like I was back in my college English BA days, you'd think, aha! Marías has revealed here the heart, the essence of his novel. Vengeance. Ancient curses. Perturbations, especially at night.
Perish the thought. This is just another one of the wonderful (or dratted --- depending on your set) alarums and excursions, amongst dozens of alarums and excursions, a trick to make us think that the author has delivered a central core message for us, drawn with lovely Shakespearean iambs, the curses and hauntings and despair and death. Those of us who are nuts about novelistic trickery will find rich significance, maybe, if we can figure it out, in lovely Luisa buying Lolita --- the author of that novel being another writer well-known for his sleight-
We might even be taken in by names. When Victor is asked by the whore --- who might be his ex-wife, if we don't think he's nuts --- to tell her his name, he calls upthe author's name, "Javier." So of course the whore responds,
Not another Javier ... Madrid's full of them or perhaps it's just the name you'd all like to have, I don't know what gets into you all.
§ § §
After gorging on this one, I came to believe that Marías is probably far too subtle to offer a Big Theme, or, perhaps, pretend that he is offering one. If we need a Theme, it is probably hidden away in one of the throwaways --- a sentence or two, usually squashed into the middle of one of those extended disquisitions. For example, Victor writes for television. His stories never get produced and he says he doesn't much care. He is invited to write a speech for the King (another king!) which never gets delivered: the event is canceled. He says,
I'm a passive kind of person who almost never seeks or wants anything or isn't aware that he's seeking or wanting anything, the sort of person things just happen to, you don't even have to move for everything to become horribly complicated, for things to happen, for there to be anger and litigation, you only have to breathe in this world, the in-breath or the out-breath, like the minimal swaying inevitable in all light objects hanging by a thread, our veiled and neutral gaze like the inert oscillation of toy aeroplanes suspended from a ceiling...
If we are foolish enough to look for Meaning, this would probably be it: the singular role of chance in our lives. Chance, which presents a man, abed, ready to indulge in adultery with a nice-looking thirty-two year old woman, who, at the magic moment, notes that she is not reacting with much passion. Because she is dead.
This chance happening makes it possible --- nay, imperative --- for Victor to become involved with Marta's family, getting to know the father, following Luisa about, finally, at the end, meeting with her cuckolded --- or nearly cuckolded --- husband. Who has just learned of the death of another woman. One he is very close to. His mistress.--- Alvin Priestley, PhD