I Was
Javier Marías
Translated by
Margaret Jull Costa

(New Directions)
In "Fewer Scruples," one of thirteen short stories here, we find ourselves with a rather shy lady who is broke, and has a child to feed. She decides to apply for a part in a pornographic movie. She's told to return in two days and, as she is leaving, one of the producers says,

    "Hey, just so there aren't any surprises or problems and so that you don't let us down at the last minute: you'll have to do a bit of French, a bit of Cuban and a fuck, all right?" He turned to the tall man to confirm this: "She won't have to do any Greek, will she?" "No, not with her, not seeing she's a novice."

Since she has never done pornography before, she is left --- as we are --- puzzling out exactly what will be expected of here when it comes to "French," "Greek" and "Cuban."

She returns for the shoot two days later, and meets partner Lorenzo in the waiting room. "I don't know this man from Adam," she muses, "and yet, in a few minutes from now, I'll be sucking him off." When he offers her some licorice sweets, she declines. "He sucked two at a time," and she thinks, "perhaps it would be best if we didn't kiss at all." She then tells Lorenzo that she is nervous, and he opines that there are other jobs that are worse. Before, he says, he worked as a guardian for a very rich Madrid family, to keep the one twenty year old daughter, a depressive, from killing herself.

Marías takes an obviously wonderful plot line, and quickly sticks us right in the middle of it, sucks us into this shaggy-dog story, making it totally believable, making us want to go on with it, get to the end of it, or even better, us not wanting it to end. He spins his characters and us in a perfect tale, as perfect as most --- if not all --- of the twelve tales he conjures up in When I Was Mortal.Part of the richness is his mastery of dialogue:

    "But of course, [says Lorenzo] you screw a woman a couple of times and you get fond of her. Well, not that fond, I've got a girlfriend too, and not because you have to, but it's different, you've touched her, you've kissed her and you don't look at her in the same way any more, and she treats you affectionately too." I wondered if I would treat him affectionately after the session awaiting us. Or if he would get fond of me because of that. I didn't interrupt. "So apart from the tension involved in the work, there was also the worry, not to say panic, I didn't want anything to happen to her, that was the last thing in the world I wanted. In short, it was a real bummer; compared to that, this is a breeze."

Our narrator comments on the vocabulary, and tells us something about herself in the process:

    "Bummer" and "breeze," you hear those words less and less, they sounded almost funny.

    "Yes," I said. "What happened, did you get fed up?" I asked, not expecting him to answer in the affirmative. In fact, he'd already told me what had happened, by the way he stopped to think before telling me the rest.

The narrative description is short (as it should be in a short story) and to-the-point:

    Loren put his hat back on and breathed hard out of those damp nostrils, as if he were gathering strength before doing something that required an effort. The brim of his hat covered his cold, grey eyes, his face was now just nose and lips, the nice lips that I would not kiss, there are no kisses on the mouth in porno films.

Then the final bit of dialogue, the final description, that rounds out our story, not in coitus, but, as it should be, suspended before that moment:

    "No, I lost my job. I failed. The princess slit her throat in the kitchen of her house three weeks ago, in the middle of the night, and I didn't even hear her leave the bedroom, what do you think of that? I was left with no one to look after. A disaster, a complete disaster." For a moment, I was seized by the thought that perhaps the actor Lorenzo was just acting in order to distract me and ease my nerves. I thought for a moment about my little girl, I'd left her with a neighbor. He stood up, paced round the room, at the same time hitching up his jeans. He stopped by the closed door through which we would soon have to pass. I thought he was going to punch it, but he didn't. He just said irritably: "When are we going to fucking get started, I haven't got all day."

And thus it ends. Like every one of his stories, ending, majestically, just where it should.

--- Lolita Lark

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