"I sometimes think that time must be different for someone who began writing and reading in reverse...than it is for most people who have never tried to go from back to front but have always progressed from front to back...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..." So says Javier Marias, very late in this masterpiece, which helps explain the title. He is not (particularly) talking about the space-time continuum, time warps and modern physics, but rather what is possible at the juncture of fact and fiction in the work of a creative writer, as well as the `what ifs' of history. Marias is simply marvelous, and reading him is like playing a game of three or even four-dimensional (to add the time continuum) chess. You turn the final page, and place it on your "must re-read list" and hopefully I'll "get" the other half, the second time around.
The author commences, first by identifying some real-life historical characters that he elaborates on later in his work, and then focuses on his "novel within a novel." In real life, Marias wrote "All Souls," based on his two years teaching at Oxford University. Is his previous novel a formal, "roman a clef," a novel based on real individuals? But aren't most novels? And for anyone who has ever written a book, there is the "squeamishness" of reading about the real life reactions of the people who are, or who think they are in Marias's earlier work. Why didn't he include me? Why was this fact omitted, that incident included, particular circumstances changed? Marias has a droll, self-deprecating style. Concerning the woman who was identified as the person who had an affair with the author, which the author at least formally denies (which side of time are we on with that one?), he says: "...and thus not only would her reputation be placed in question but her good taste as well."
"I must make a digression--this is a book of digressions..." Indeed, it is, as Marias writes about three real life characters, and sometimes writers. Wilfred Ewart, who managed to survive World War I in the trenches, participated in the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1915, but latter was felled by a bullet in his "dead" eye on the last moment of 1922, in Mexico City. Was it an accidental shot from New Year's revelers, or something more sinister? Marias plays at a bit of "C.S.I." 80 years later. There is also John Gawsworth, the "King of Redonda," an uninhabited island in the Caribbean. (Marias is now "credited" as being the Spanish king of Redonda.) Gawsworth wrote well, and was to die `in the gutter.' The third writer, as well as one of life's adventurers, was Hugh Oloff de Wet, whose own history was widely woven fact and fiction. There is a marvelous scene when de Wet meets Franco, the then dictator of Spain, and tries to solicit funds for his effort to overthrow the Soviet Union. Since Marias' real-life father had been on Franco's death list, you can assume the "Admiral" did not come off very well in this passage. (The books written by these three authors, which Marias mentions, obscure though they might be, are generally available at Amazon.)
Marias interlaces this wonderful rich soufflé, with literary illusions, high and low, obscure historical reference and definitive opinions on the poverty of the human condition. Since Marias has toiled in academia, rest assured they do not come off well. Consider: "Accustomed to the robbery, looting, plagiarism and endless espionage of the contemporary university..." Or, in taking on humanity as a whole: "...I've seen from certain social-climbing businessmen when they were crossed: contemptible, insecure people who inspire no respect and need to convince themselves of their eminence, crushing anyone they can, anyone who is weak, to ceaselessly renew their always scanty confidence..."
In the midst of this wild literary pastiche of erudition, there is a poignant half chapter, on his "older" brother, Julianin, who died at the age of 3 ½. The author explores the "what ifs" of history, how the author himself might not even be alive, or would be a different person - the same thing he says - if Julianin had lived. There is a heart-breaking portrait, and an even more moving picture of Julianin. RM Peterson, in his own review of this book, notes the parallels between Marias, and W.G. Sebald. Indeed there are, including the obscure photos placed with the narrative. It was reassuring to hear that they were friends (Sebald died in 2001).
I'd only fault Marias on one issue: he has apparently fallen for one of history's fakes and scoundrels, TE Lawrence, as in, "Lawrence of Arabia," who makes repeated appearance in this work, including: "...and Lawrence of Arabia, the unattainable ideal of all adventurers..."(p 302).
Overall, a Pychonesque novel in scope, breadth, and quirky erudition, and I would give it to Marias "on points" in terms of insight into the human condition. A re-read within the next five years...if, of course... In the meantime, without hyperventilating, or even breathing deep, it certainly deserves 6-stars for the first time around.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on June 07, 2010)