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Underappreciated Masterpieces: Javier Marías’s 'Dark Back of Time'

I ordered <i>Dark Back of Time</i> from an online bookstore, based almost entirely on the title. I know that goes directly against traditional book-buying advice, but that’s really a hell of a title, and it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve...

I ordered Javier Marías's Dark Back of Time from an online bookstore, based almost entirely on the title. I know that goes directly against traditional book-buying advice, but that’s really a hell of a title, and it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. Aside from its name, the book stood out for its description, which mentions how the author considers it a “false novel,” and that its story opens with his contemplating the effects of publishing his previous novel, All Souls. I was immediately struck by the idea of a “false novel,” which kind of inverts the idea most people have about a novel being false, or at least imagined, full of constructions and artifices. An author directly calling his novel “false” seemed to develop around it an immediate mystique, a Borgesian sense that the book could be something of a trap door, or a false mirror, behind which something other than simple fiction lurks.

The fact that it acknowledges itself, and the author’s previous novel, is a breaking of the third wall that immediately brings to mind associations with Orson Welles’s F for Fake, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, all self-referential objects that break into bizarre ground simply by talking about themselves.

But where Dark Back of Time begins its exploration in this manner, in the end it has more to do with the effect fiction—and its mirage-like incorporation of reality—has on the world around it. Marías, at least as he appears as a narrator in this novel, explains how All Souls caused a stir among his local community when it was published, because many people assumed it was based on them. It is set in the town where Marías himself actually lived, and characters resemble various persons at Oxford College, where the author taught. So it makes sense that many saw themselves there on the page, and viewed the novel as a thinly veiled appropriation of Marías’s actual opinions about them, a window into his brain and life. Even if this perceived depiction wasn’t at all flattering, they were happy to believe themselves immortalized in such a fashion, to have had enough effect, positive or negative, on the author to appear now in print, forever.

But Marías, the narrator of this novel about the novel, doesn’t believe All Souls has any basis in the actual lives of people in his community. He believes such an idea is ridiculous, useless, even sick.

“It is always said,” he writes, “that behind every novel lies an episode, however pallid or tenuous or intermittent, in the life or reality of the author, though it may have been transfigured. This is said as if in distrust of the imagination and the inventive faculties, and also as if readers and critics needed something to hang onto, to keep from falling prey either to the strange vertigo of that which is absolutely invented and without experience or basis—as if they did not want to feel the horror of something that appears to exist as we read it, that breathes and whispers and sometimes even persuades, yet has never been—or to the ultimate absurdity of taking seriously what is only a representation, as if they were struggling against the lurking awareness that reading novels is a childish pastime, or at least inappropriate to the adult life that is always gaining on us.”

For Marías, it seems, the act of creating fiction is not to understand what has already happened, because you cannot, but instead to solidify and strengthen the strange wires that connect the world. Much of the book, in the midst of attempting to parse its own impact, veers off into holes in its own material; there might be three pages suddenly recounting the contents of a novel written by a guy who believed himself to have appeared in Marías’ previous book. The death of the same man by a bullet through his eye takes on as much attention as the opening premise of the book, as do countless other tiny scenes and facts as they appear in the author’s memory.

The effect creates a kind of flood of impressions, histories, and ideas, more so than any story. Fans of W. G. Sebald will recognize the loose narrative structure of something like a walk through memory as Marías stacks layers and layers of the world into the flow, creating a kind of open network meant not to contain the world, but to extend it, knit it together. Anecdotes of history stand alongside more hearsay, snippets of the author’s childhood, passages of other authors’ fiction Marías has read, literary rumors, rants by insane Nazis attempting to define truth… all of it held together solely by Marías’ consideration, his somehow tranquilizing prose. The line between the fiction and the reality it considers are at once separate and distinct, while also bound together in a mass by what Marías thinks of as a continuity containing all possible experience, a ghostly underbelly or “dark back of time” standing underneath all points of the world.

The world, as a result, is much larger and more incalculable, less bent on bullshit like who appeared when or where. Small things like making art or believing in oneself hold less value than simply being, going on in the flood of time. “What does it matter, nothing is really that strange, and who would be interested, there are no hidden forces guiding anything or leading anyone to the place of his death, all possibilities are contained in the passage of that, that is, in the past and future,” he writes. “What a pity to want to soar without knowing how, it happens to most of us.”

The inherent darkness of these conclusions—if they can be called conclusions—serve as a great resolution, having come from what at the beginning of the book seemed something so trivial and petty as people searching for representations of themselves in a novel. There is no uplifting premise here, no way out, and if anyone is crushed in the expanse that’s been created, it is the author, who claims to not know why he exists. And yet, despite whatever futility may seem rampant as a result, the consolation is that this time we have not been bullshitted, or pulled around. There is no ego here but in its negation, the sacrifice of any story into the totality of time, and we’re all better off having to hear it.

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