When I was a member of a popular book-reviewing website I created a feature called bitch please!, the basic premise of which was to highlight books that I had given up on due to some unacceptable stupidity in terms of plot, character etc. For example, in Philip Roth’s The Counterlife there is a passage where the central male character discusses his infidelity, and he describes a certain sexual act as anal love, as in ‘we made anal love.’ Anal love? Haha! If I was to ever let that phrase pass my lips in the company of a girlfriend I don’t think I’d be allowed to touch her again. And rightly so. Anyway, as part of this bitch please! feature I also posted about Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marias [who is generally thought to be one of the world’s greatest living authors], a book that is, quite frankly, so stupid at times that it makes Anchorman 2 look like a serious, compelling drama.
Recently, however, I thought to give it another go, to overlook the moment of authorial madness that made me throw the book into the corner of the room as though it were a naughty child, because, although I’m by no means a fan, I’m intrigued by Marias’ work and concerns, and so I figured that Tomorrow in the Battle [which is actually considered to be his best] deserved a second chance. I started from the beginning [rather than where I bailed last time] and I must admit that I really enjoyed the first 100-plus pages. The premise of the novel is that a man, Victor, arrives for dinner at the home of a married woman and her child, while her husband is away on business. At the end of the meal they put the child to bed and go upstairs in order to get it on…but, unfortunately, as they undress, the woman starts to feel unwell and eventually dies. Bummer.
It sounds melodramatic, and silly, and, yeah, it kind of is, but Marias, who certainly is capable of fine writing, handles it all very well. This section of the novel works as a meditation not only on death, but also on chance and circumstance and fate. It is about the unfolding of life, about where it can suddenly, almost despite yourself, take you, about how you never know what is around the corner. Victor finds himself in a situation he could not have planned for, and ruminates on how it came to be that it was he who happened to be in the apartment when the woman died, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had made the date for another day, if the couple had got the child to sleep faster [in which case they would have fucked sooner and he would have already left] etc.
It’s not merely a straight-faced investigation into life’s big questions, either. There’s a macabre sense of humour on display; the set-up is, in fact, very funny, not only because poor Victor came over for a booty-call and ended up with a dead body, but also because, like Kafka’s protagonists, he is caught in an absurd situation beyond his control. Victor wants to notify the woman’s family, and yet he is aware of both the ridiculous nature of her death – dying in the arms of a man you were about to have a one-night stand with – and the potential [further] upset he will cause if they find out that she died while cheating on her husband. In the end, he attempts to remove any sign of his presence, unsuccessfully, and pulls the woman into bed in order to suggest she died in her sleep; he then leaves a weird plate of food for the boy he is about to abandon in a house with his dead mother, and gets the hell out of there. I don’t know about you, but I find all that rather amusing.
However, even though I enjoyed the opening of the novel it is certainly not perfect. Marias writes in very long run-on sentences, and sometimes they go awry. Now, my grammar isn’t perfect, so who am I to criticise, but it is slightly galling when a professional writer [or translator – Marias is Spanish and the book was translated by the usually excellent Margaret Jull Costa] doesn’t seem to know how to correctly use commas. Furthermore, Marias does, at times, write in a kind of pompous I’m-giving-you-profound-insight-by-the-bucketful tone that can be irritating, especially when what he is giving us is enjoyable, and thought-provoking, but hardly original or mind-blowing. Having said that, if the book had contained only this first section, had it been an odd Nabokovian novella, I’d have happily recommended it, perhaps not as a masterpiece, but as a quick, fun read with some depth.
100 pages, you might be thinking, that’s a fairly hefty slice of the book. A little bit churlish, you might say, to happily eat a third of a cake and then turn around and say it tastes like shit. Well, yes, perhaps, but the problems with Tomorrow in the Battle are, for me, so serious that, when faced with them, my goodwill wilted quicker than an old man’s penis. The most glaring misstep, the point at which I gave up last time, is centred around a significant portion of the book in which the central male character meets a prostitute who he thinks may be his ex-wife. Erm. ‘May’ is the key word there. He’s not sure, oh no, he just thinks she may be his ex-wife. Seriously. We’re meant to believe that this man stops at some traffic lights, is approached by a prostitute, and this prostitute just happens to look a whole hell of a lot like…his ex-wife…who he was with for 3 years and who he saw last only 4-5 months previously.
Now, that is bad enough, but, wait, it gets worse…the girl actually gets into his car…so, they’re, like, sitting inches apart from each other…this man and his, uh, ex-wife…and even if you accept that he is stupid enough, blind enough, not to be able to recognise her when she sits inches from his face, it’s simply preposterous to suggest that she wouldn’t be able to recognise him…because two people can’t both be that dumb, right?…and yet she doesn’t…in fact they end up fucking…fucking!…this man and the woman who might be his, ah, ex-wife…bitch please! It’s one of the most insane scenes I’ve ever come across…in anything…honestly, like, ever. Which is not to say I don’t get it. I do. Marias is trying to make some point about time, and how time erases memory; but knowing why someone has done something doesn’t make it ok. It’s like saying the nazis ‘had their reasons.’
Yet Marias doesn’t stop there. After the death of the woman Victor arranges to meet the family of the deceased, using a pseudonym, and begins to, um, trail the dead woman’s sister. And, well, I was grimacing a bit at this stage, but I stuck with it, because I’m ok with literature that deals with strange, sinister men, even though I wasn’t entirely convinced that Victor was, y’know, meant to be sinister. But it was the point at which Victor was outed as the man who had been in the apartment, when the sister realises that Victor has been following her, and that he was the man who had witnessed the death and then left in the middle of the night [leaving the child on his own with a dead body], that had me clawing at my face in exasperation. Because, the sister, far from being upset or freaked out, y’know like a normal person would, agrees to…go on a date with this man. Yes, it was then that I knew that what I was dealing with was essentially a high-brow version of Fifty Shades of Grey, something so ludicrous, with characters and situations so unbelievable, as to be almost intellectually offensive. And so I quit, for the second time. Bravo, Javier, you’re the only writer to ever make me quit a book…twice. I tried, Señor, I really tried, I gave you the benefit of the doubt more than once, but your book, well, it is a bit crap, no?