Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize
Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muños Molina, translated from the Spanish by Camilo A. Ramirez, reimagines, with meticulous attention to detail, the brief time that James Earl Ray spent in Lisbon while he was on the run from the authorities following his assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Moreover, the account of Ray’s time in Lisbon also serves as a jumping-off point for a parallel narrative which delves into the author’s own memories of the first time that he visited Lisbon in 1987 as a 31-year-old aspiring writer, who was then living a kind of double life as a husband and father of two small children on the weekends in Madrid, and as a bachelor during the week in Granada, where he worked as a civil servant by day and frequented nightclubs at night. We also learn that he is a jazz aficionado, who hopes to translate the aesthetic of jazz music into his writing and the book is scattered with his musings on the process of writing fiction. The novel then proceeds to follow these two narratives, using alternating chapters.
The chapters following James Earl Ray unfold as a police report that catalogues Ray’s every move, his various aliases, personal items, people that he met during his stay in Lisbon. This obsessive cataloguing soon becomes quite tedious and repetitive, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice by the author to make a point that detailed knowledge of even the most trivial minutiae about a person’s life can’t give us true insight into a person’s mind.
It is amazing how much you can learn about a person and still never truly know him, because he never said what was most important: a dark hole, a blank space; a mug shot, the rough lines of a facial composite based on disjointed testimonies and vague memories.
The parallel narrative focuses on the author’s personal memories of his escapades in Lisbon, while he was doing research for his breakthrough novel A Winter in Lisbon. I must admit that I struggled to remain interested in these chapters that describe his walks around Lisbon, during which he is preoccupied with extreme navel-gazing and philosophising about the writing process, while his wife is alone in Madrid caring for a toddler and a newborn baby. He just comes off as an incredibly selfish dude-bro.
I was discovering a capacity I had rarely exercised in my life: the ability to radically change my circumstances and immerse myself in the unexpected; to forget entirely what I had left behind; to lose myself, like in a jungle or a submarine, in the things that really interested me, a novel, a film, a song, an emotion; to disappear entirely, without a trace, not even a thread that could guide me back, no remorse, no nostalgia, no memory. I did not miss anyone and no memories could distract me from that present. I was not thinking about my wife, who was overwhelmed taking care of the two children. I was not thinking about the three-year-old boy nor the baby who that very same day was turning one month old. I was not thinking about my job in Granada that awaited me in just three days.
Where the novel truly succeeds is painting a vivid portrait of Lisbon. It’s full of beautiful descriptions of the city that made me daydream about sitting in a café in Lisbon, enjoying a cup of great Portuguese coffee and a pastel de nata.
My eyes have never seen light like the one that washes over Lisbon; its colors have an attenuated quality: the blue of the sky and the red of the roof tiles, the blues and greens and yellows and ochers of walls punished by the maritime weather; the brightness of the azulejo tiles; the red, open flowers on the tops of tropical trees with trunks like the backs of elephants.
At the same time, I was constantly questioning the purpose of mixing these two parallel story threads of James Earl Ray and the author as a young man. I found the chapters that tried to image James Earl Ray’s mental processes during his time in Lisbon, where he fled in the hopes of receiving a visa to then try his luck as a mercenary in one of Portugal’s colonies in Africa, were quite compelling. However, I felt that the chapters focusing on the author’s personal memories had very little to do with the James Earl Ray story and constantly interrupted the rhythm of the novel. Based on the synopsis, I was expecting that the novel would have a similar narrative structure to HHhH by Laurent Binet, a fascinating story of heroism that reconstructs the events of Operation Anthropoid in 1942, mixed with the author’s self-reflection on the writing process and the genre of historical fiction.
Sadly, this book didn’t meet my expectations, however, one of the highlights of Like A Fading Shadow were the sections, in which the author references different works of literature, film, music and art and suggests that parallel to real cities, there are fictionalised versions of these cities, created by artists, that only exist in the specific pieces of art.
In a somewhat similar way, Muños Molina seems to also suggest that people have fictionalised counterparts as well, which are created and shaped by the observations and perceptions of other people. The author ruminates on the idea that, as much as we can learn about a person through research, we can never truly know another person, so every attempt that is made by an author to view the world through someone else’s eyes is essentially doomed to failure. It is clear that the author did a massive amount of research on James Earl Ray while writing this novel, however, the amount of detail presented in this book made it a slog to get through. Overall, the novel had some interesting ideas about literature and the act of trying to reconstruct events from someone’s life, but ultimately I felt that it lacked a clear focus. Moreover, the way the author decided to end the story felt like another diversion, which only reinforced my feeling that the two story threads didn’t work that well together, but I’m nevertheless intrigued to try something else by Muños Molina.