One, Two, Three and Four: Bad Nature, or the Literary Universe of Javier Marias
At first glance, Javier Marías’ short novella (or long short story) Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico—originally published serially in 1996 in Spain’s El País newspaper—appears little more than a put on, a dashed-off throwback by a Marías who had already reached literary maturity, if not yet the all but uncontested international reverence he enjoys today, to the pastiche of his early, adolescent novels: the absurdist tale of one Ruibérriz de Torres who, from an indeterminately contemporary present, recalls the trip he took to Mexico at the age of twenty-two (just past adolescence himself) to work as Spanish language consultant to Elvis Presley during shooting for the film Fun in Acapulco.
But what seems a mere literary inside joke initially, and perhaps even to the author himself—in the epigraph, Marías dedicates the short novella, or long short story, to “someone who’s laughing in my ear”—reveals itself, upon closer examination, to be a good deal more. Clocking in at fifty-seven rather diminutive pages in its recently released English translation, an elegant gold and white paperback the size of a folded napkin and nearly as slender, Bad Nature performs a virtually Borgesian distillation of, if not the entire literary universe—as is the case in some of the best of Borges’ stories—then at the very least the entirety of Marías’ personal literary universe: the “Yoknapatawpha of the mind,” as Wyatt Mason described it in 2005, that the Spanish novelist has been mapping, in a single voice, over years and across novels.
The novel’s narrator, for starters, reprises a secondary character from Marías’ 1994 Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. In that novel Ruibérriz de Torres, a well-connected opportunist who appears on the scene a couple of times as a means of “swelling the progress” and then perfunctorily withdraws, comes off as something of a scoundrel. Addressing the reader in Bad Nature in the instantly recognizable first person voice in which all of Marías’ mature novels are narrated, however, he becomes a good deal more sympathetic, and not simply because he will turn out to be the victim—a victim, in any event—of one very bad night in Mexico City. Rather, this Ruibérriz de Torres becomes sympathetic above all because, like all of the mature Marías’ narrators, so interchangeable in the moment they begin to narrate that it is difficult not to take them as a sort of collective amanuensis for the author himself, he is someone victimized by his own seemingly irresistible compulsion to tell.
If Marías’ work, as Mason contends, indeed maps a “Yoknapatawpha of the mind” or any other territory for that matter, then this little problem of telling is without doubt its capital city. “One should never tell anyone anything,” begins the typically exegetic opening chapter of Marías’ most recent novel, the three-volume, 1500-page masterwork Your Face Tomorrow, and thus it will be the task of the narrator Jacques Deza, bound as he is by the novelistic prohibition against internal contradiction, to determine just what mysterious force compels him to tell (and tell and tell) despite the dangers. In the case of Bad Nature’s much more youthful Ruibérriz de Torres, by contrast, the dangers of telling are not given in advance but will only be discovered after the fact. What compels him to tell, on the other hand, is perfectly straightforward: it is his job.
As his Spanish language consultant on set, Ruibérriz becomes the de facto translator for Elvis and his entourage on their almost-nightly forays, traveling in the singer’s private airplane, to Mexico City. One such night, the group finds its way into a dank bar outside the city center, lorded over by a table of “whitewashed gangsters,” as Ruibérriz describes them: “intimidating but for the time irreproachable,” “businessmen with employees who accompanied them wherever they went and protected them when necessary.” One of those gangsters, the fat one, sits holding a “vast green handkerchief” that he by turns uses “to mop his brow or to fan the atmosphere as if he were shooing away flies or performing magic tricks, sending it floating out over the dance floor for a second,” while across the same dance floor Elvis and his entourage, amongst them a loathsomely parasitic hanger-on known alternately as George McGraw and George Herald, order tequilas at the bar.
Initially, the hostility between the two groups remains implicit, restricted to suspicious glances and mutterings under the breath. But when McGraw/Herald takes to the dance floor, first blocking, with his own rather corpulent frame, the gangsters’ view of three girls probably rented or hired as entertainment for the night, and then committing the far more serious indiscretion of grabbing the vast green handkerchief from the fat gangster’s hand and “voluptuously toweling it across his buttocks” as he gyrates, an all-out melee erupts. In its aftermath, it falls on Ruibérriz—because it is his job—to translate the insults exchanged by the two groups. The most serious of these insults, as it turns out, is leveled by none other than Elvis himself, who instructs Ruibérriz to tell the gangster who now claims to own the bar—“Tell him this”—that he is a “goon and a pig,” and that his friend with the handkerchief is a “fat faggot.”
Predictably this does not go over well with the gangsters. Perhaps less predictably, it is Ruibérriz, and not Elvis, who will be forced to bear the consequences of their discontent. Elvis and his friends are permitted to leave, while Ruibérriz is held behind, hemmed in by an enormous bouncer when he tries to follow them. “You’re not leaving,” the gangster bar owner tells him. “You must spend a little more time with us tonight. You can tell us about the Madre Patria and maybe even insult us some more.” The young Spaniard’s protests that it was not he who had insulted the gangsters, that he had only translated someone else’s insults, are futile. “Ah, you didn’t do anything but translate,” the fat gangster—and the most gravely insulted—replies. “Too bad we don’t know if that’s true, we don’t speak English. Whatever Elvis said we didn’t understand, but you we understood, you speak very clearly, in a little bit of a rush like everyone else back in Spain, but we hear you loud and clear and you can rest assured that we’re listening.”
This, of course, is the moment that Ruibérriz realizes what the narrator of Your Face Tomorrow—himself a reprisal of the narrator of Marías’ 1989 All Souls—begins already knowing: that one would probably be better off never telling anyone anything. “I only had to get them to forgive me,” Ruibérriz recalls thinking to himself, in a passing moment of optimism, “for words that were not mine—though they had been on my lips, or had become real only through my lips, I was the one who had divulged them or deciphered them—but that was incredible, how could they hold me guilty for something that didn’t proceed from my head or my will or my spirit. But it had come from my tongue, my tongue had made it possible, from my tongue they had grasped what was happening.”
And, of course, it will be far too late to for him take it back. In the frenetic pages that follow, Ruibérriz is dragged along by the gangsters to a string of similarly dank and depressing strip clubs and tequila bars on the outskirts of the city until at last, it seems, they have grown tired of the evening. At the fourth or fifth bar in the series, “a place along a highway, a place of last resort,” the fat gangster, encouraged by his partner to “get it over with,” hauls Ruibérriz through a back door, “a swinging door that kept on swinging,” into a cluttered back yard, his intentions unmistakable. In the startling passage that follows, the present-day Ruibérriz recounts what was to have been the scene of his death:
I felt the wind for an instant against my face, and then dry grass, without missing a beat the fat man had put me on the ground…. Then I felt his enormous weight straddling my back and then something around my neck, the belt or the handkerchief, it had to be the green handkerchief… and now there was nothing, no music or rumba or trumpet, only the sound of the wind… and the squeaking hinge of the door we had come through, out onto the stage of my unforeseen death in a back yard on the outskirts of Mexico City, how could it be true, you wander into some dive and you don’t imagine that here begins the end and that everything finishes obscurely and ridiculously under the pressure of a crumpled, greasy, filthy handkerchief that’s been used a thousand times to mop the forehead, neck and temples of the person who is killing you, killing me, he is killing me, no one could have foreseen it this morning and everything ends in a second, one, two and three and four.
Sufficiently haunting on its own, the passage is also hauntingly similar to the near-death scene—or so its victim believes—that occupies the center of Dance and Dream, the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow. In this scene, a young Spanish diplomat by the name of De la Garza, no less loathsome than Bad Nature’s McGraw/Herald, has been dragged by Tupra, the whitewashed gangster of sorts for whom Deza ends up working during his own self-imposed exile to London, into a nightclub bathroom. While De la Garza kneels to sniff a line of what he thinks is cocaine from the toilet lid, Tupra takes a “Landskencht sword” (whatever that is) from inside of his jacket and raises it above De la Garza’s head. Just a couple of steps away, a horrified Deza imagines De la Garza “come to Judgment… with his head on his shoulders and not under his arm as if it were a ball or a globe of the world,” explaining: “I died in England, in a public toilet, in a handicapped toilet in the old city of London…. It was another country, the country of the man who killed me.”
It is more than mere coincidence, I think, that like Ruibérriz De la Garza dies—or at least believes he is going to die, is indeed “certain” of that death—in “another country.” Death rarely if ever comes when and where it should in Marías’ literary universe. One is always somewhere other than where one should be when it comes or, as in the impossibly protracted opening scene of the aforementioned Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, with someone other than the one one should be with. It is indeed as though there can be, in Marías’ literary universe, no death, or perhaps more importantly no disappearance—in Spanish, one should recall, the verb desaparecer can be used in place of morir, for “to die”— that is not, as Simone de Beauvoir writes at the end of A Very Easy Death, “as violent and unforeseen as an engine stopping in the middle of the sky.”
But De la Garza, when all is said and done, does not die in that London bathroom, in Your Face Tomorrow, and neither does Ruibérriz de Torres in that Mexico City backyard. Both are for all intents and purposes dead already, but ultimately both somehow survive those certain deaths. And just as there is resonance between the manner in which Ruibérriz recounts what was to have been the scene of his own death, and the way Deza, in Your Face Tomorrow, imagines a De la Garza “come to Judgment” recalling and recounting what was to have been the scene of his, there is a strange but revealing resonance in the enigmatic means by which each truly survives.
In both cases this survival appears, oddly enough, to be a question of counting. Pinned and running out of breath in a cluttered backyard on the outskirts of Mexico City, Ruibérriz manages to throw the fat gangster off of his back, and he is able to do it, he reflects, because “you need more than the first impulse to strangle someone, it has to be kept up for many more seconds, five and six and seven and eight and even more, still more, because each of those seconds is counted, and counts, and here I am still, and I’m breathing, one, two and three and four, and now I’m the one who grabs a pick and run with it raised over my head to dig it into the chest of the fat man who has fallen.” De la Garza, by contrast, finds no hidden reserve of strength with which to turn the tables on the one who will have been his killer, and yet he too outlives death—at least as Deza imagines it (or imagines Tupra imagining it)—by counting. Deza describes the manner in which Tupra, having already brought the sword down as though to kill him, “held the blade for a moment very close to De la Garza’s hunched neck and shoulders, as if he wanted him to feel its presence—the breath of steel—and even familiarize himself with it before the final blow… As if he wanted him to realize that he was alive and was about to die in the next instant, in any one of those instants—one, two, three and four; but not yet” (the emphasis is mine).
Although they share this experience of having survived their own certain death, however, De la Garza and Bad Nature’s Ruibérriz de Torres should not be mistaken for analogues. Indeed, if Ruibérriz resembles anyone in Your Face Tomorrow it is, it seems, its narrator, Deza. Like Deza, Ruibérriz knows quite well, and from the beginning, the dangers of telling—he learned all about them during one very bad night in Mexico City. But knowing those dangers Ruibérriz, like Deza, decides to tell nonetheless, and so, come to the end of Bad Nature we are forced to ask the very question that imposes itself, on both Deza and the reader, at the beginning of Your Face Tomorrow: Why? By what mysterious force, what overpowering impulse, is one compelled to tell despite all good advice to the contrary?
Tellingly Ruibérriz decides to tell—or is compelled to tell—after stumbling upon the original soundtrack for Fun in Acapulco in a Madrid record store (“I was looking for something by Previn,” he explains) and reading, in its liner notes, a “false history” of the film. According to that false history, also the “official version,” “Presley never set foot in Acapulco during the making of the film.” Instead, he stayed in Los Angeles and shot all of his scenes on set at Paramount Studios “while a second unit crew went to Mexico to shoot landscape stills and footage of locals in the streets for use as backgrounds.”
More than a mere effort to set the record straight however, the discovery (or re-discovery, in fact) of this “false history,” as I see it, instigates a second, now doubled, fight for survival—not only that of the very same twenty-two year old Ruibérriz de Torres who was taken out into the yard behind a dive bar along the highway outside of Mexico City and all but killed by a fat gangster wielding a vast green handkerchief, but as well that of the novella’s narrator, the indeterminately contemporary Ruibérriz. If the ten days (intended to be three weeks) that Elvis spent in Mexico, between daytime shoots in Acapulco and nighttime escapades to Mexico City, disappear, then so, too, does the youthful Spaniard who served as his on-set Spanish language consultant and off-set translator during those ten days—disappears into the stormy Mexico City night that was to have been the scene of his death. And if that Ruibérriz disappears (the same as if he dies) then there can be no this Ruibérriz, to the extent that he is only a continuation of that other Ruibérriz.
“The concept of life is given its due only if that which has a history of its own, and is not merely the setting for history, is credited with life.” These words belong not to Marías but rather to Harry Zohn’s notoriously imperfect translation of Walter Benjamin’s notoriously untranslatable “The Task of the Translator.” All the same, it is uncanny that the one who tells something he almost surely should not have in Marías’ Bad Nature—“Tell him this,” says Elvis, and Ruibérriz, perfunctorily, because it is his job, complies—does so precisely by translating, and as a translator, while what is at stake in Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” is precisely the question of the “afterlife” as that mode or form of living capable of surviving, of outliving even death itself.
Or, perhaps, something more than just uncanny. In Spanish, as it happens, the verb that is used to signify “to count”—contar—also means “to tell,” as one tells a historia or “history” (true or false, official or unofficial) or, more colloquially, a “story.” The metonymic shift in meaning suggested by that bit of homonymy may well unravel the enigma of counting, as an apparent means of surviving even the most “certain” of deaths, in the scene rehearsed in Bad Nature and then repeated in Your Face Tomorrow, and moreover in a way that brings us close to Benjamin’s own enigmatic tautology.
Perhaps counting—“one, two, three and four”—should in both scenes be taken as a metaphor, standing in place of that other meaning of the same word: telling. Taken as such, this strange counting-as-survival that we encounter first in the glimmeringly compact Bad Nature and again, nearly a decade later, in the sweepingly Proustian Your Face Tomorrow, may well reveal the very faith, cutting across books and through years, by which Marías’ unique and singularly recognizable literary universe is constellated. Itself distilled in Deza’s’ claim, in Your Face Tomorrow, that “only today counts,” it is faith that whoever is still “counting,” which is to say “telling”—though it may be from across the abyss of irretrievable years, as in the case of Bad Nature’s Ruibérriz de Torres, or, as with certain no longer living characters in Your Face Tomorrow, from within the compass of some still living narrator’s own tale—is still present, somehow still is, even if as only one more possible version of that which once (or, for that matter, never) was.
Image used with permission from El País.