Earlier today I came across the Paris Review after stumbling online looking for something to read. The Paris Review is a well-known literary magazine that is published quarterly and a publication that I have read online on occasion, most often for the insightful and in-depth author interviews. After glancing through it earlier I spotted one such feature that I had not read before – an enlightening interview with the Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías. He is an author who I had come across by chance in a bookstore in Newcastle upon Tyne a few years ago and one that I have come to love after reading his novels A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, alongside his short story collection When I Was Mortal which I became intrigued by as it offered stylistic snapshots of his writing and intense introspective vignettes.
In a section of the interview Marías discusses his relatives and his personal family history in the tumultuous 20th century, his father’s imprisonment under Franco’s regime in Spain (1939-1975) and the times the family spent in other countries in effective exile during Franco’s rule. In particular he recalls an instance of the personal face of death within the family…
‘You sometimes use actual photographs in your novels.’
‘Yes, because when I read about an image I like to see it at the same time, be it a painting or a photograph. But you must be very careful with putting actual things in a novel. In the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, there is a moment when the narrator recalls the story of his uncle, who was killed during the war, and how his mother had to look for him because he didn’t come home, and she eventually found a photograph of her brother dead. That is a real story—it happened to my uncle. He was killed in the war when he was seventeen. I did reproduce one photograph, but I knew I could not put in the other one of him dead. Just as it is told in the book, the photograph was inside this box, wrapped in red cloth. It is quite a terrible photograph. I did not dare make it part of a fiction. You can’t expose the dead too much.’
(Quoted from Fay’s interview in 2009).
I was struck by the last sentence, of how the preservation of the image within the box carefully wrapped contrasted sharply with the limited exposure that it would receive stored in this way. In this case the photographic image displayed not the living, breathing individual that the family remembered but the final portrait of his uncle’s body, frozen in time. The context is unclear but the photograph does not need to be seen, at least by the audience, or to be presented in a fictional piece of writing as Marías attests. The imagined brutality of his death is enough; the truth remaining as memory shared by the family.
Bibliography & Further Reading
Fay, S. 2009. Javier Marías: The Art of Fiction No. 190. The Paris Review. Winter Edition. 179. (Open Access).
Marías, J. 2012. A Heart So White. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. London: Penguin Classics.
Marías, J. 2013. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. New York: Vintage International.