By Javier Marías, from To Begin at the Beginning, a reflection on the art of writing fiction. The book was published in October by Sylph Editions as part of their Cahiers Series. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. Thus Bad Begins, Marías’s thirteenth novel, appeared last month and is discussed in this month’s Reviews section.
When my Cuban great-grandfather, Enrique Manera y Cao, was still a young man, perhaps around 1873, perhaps before, when, at any rate, he was still a bachelor, he went out for a ride one morning and, on his return home for lunch, a beggar forced him to stop by grabbing his horse’s bridle, and then had the nerve to ask for alms, a request that my great-grandfather, doubtless incensed by such boldness, refused, before presumably sending him packing in no uncertain terms. It was then that the beggar put a curse on him, “a somewhat baroque and unusually precise curse,” as I put it in my novel Dark Back of Time, where I first recounted the incident. “You and your eldest son,” he predicted, “will both die before you are fifty, far from your homeland and without a grave.” Young Manera y Cao took no notice, roughly pushed the beggar out of the way, and went home, where he told the anecdote over lunch and promptly forgot all about it. Someone, however, did remember: perhaps a nanny who passed on the story to the next generation when they came along, which is how it has come down to me. Or perhaps someone recalled it in the light of what happened later, without which the anecdote would surely have been lost forever.
At this point, I should perhaps make the following comment: in literature as in life, we don’t always know what is part of a story until that story has reached its conclusion. My writings are full of episodes and anecdotes, images and phrases that seem to have no specific or significant function in the whole. You might think they were there purely by accident, on a whim, and that is usually the case when they first appear in the text. Later, however, they reappear and take on meaning, or a different meaning, and turn out to be not as episodic, accidental, or capricious as they seemed: they become a fundamental part of the story. As I have said on numerous occasions, I work without a map, I work only with a compass; that is, if I already knew the whole story I was going to tell, if I had it all in my head before I sat down to write, I probably wouldn’t bother to write it. I would see it as a mere exercise in transcription and that would bore me, and I would even think: “If I know everything from the start, what is the point of setting it down on paper when I’m not going to find out anything new?” Or, put another way: if I know why the encounter between my great-grandfather and the Havana beggar turned out to be important or significant, what is the point of telling that to myself? Because the first person a writer tells a story to is always himself, and if I already know the story from start to finish, I’m sure to get bored — and, worse, my readers would sense my boredom. If I’m merely engaged in a mechanical task, giving a story form and pacing and style and rhythm, with no element of surprise for myself, no new discoveries, without in the process discovering or finding out anything new, that is, without inventing anything, because the Latin verb invenire, from which we get our word inventar, to invent, means exactly that: to discover, to find, to find out. That’s why I have so often said that when I write, I apply the same principle of knowledge that rules life. Just as we do what we do when we’re twenty without knowing that when we reach forty we may wish we had done something else, and just as when we’re forty we have no alternative but to abide by what we did when we were twenty, we can’t erase or amend anything, so I write what I write on page 5 of a novel with no idea if this will prove to have been a good idea when I reach page 200, and far from writing a second or third version, adapting page 5 to what I later find out will appear on page 200, I don’t change a word, I stand by what I wrote at the very beginning — tentatively and intuitively, accidentally or capriciously. Except that, unlike life — which is why life tends to be such a bad novelist — I try to ensure that what had no meaning at the beginning does have meaning at the end. I force myself to make necessary what was random and even superfluous, so that ultimately it’s neither random nor superfluous. I force myself to give meaning to what initially lacked meaning and was simply like a die thrown into the air.
This is why I am retelling the story of the curse that fell on my great-grandfather Manera y Cao, which, although it did actually happen, still seems — as it did to me when I heard it as a child from his daughters Lola and María — a clever fiction dreamed up by a purposeful narrator who knows what he’s doing. In 1898, when Spain lost Cuba, Enrique Manera y Cao decided that he could not bear to see any flag but the Spanish flag flying over his country, especially not the Stars and Stripes, not after the dirty war waged by “those Yankees,” as he and his descendants called them. (I remember my grandmother and my great-aunt talking about what they called in Spanish la voladura del Maine, that is, the blowing-up of the U.S. battleship Maine, which many have suspected was blown up by the Americans themselves in order to be able to blame the Spanish and thus have an excuse to go to war. “That was just an underhanded trick on the part of those filthy Yankees,” the two old ladies would declare in unison, sitting opposite each other in their armchairs, constantly fanning themselves — the abiding image I have of them from my childhood.) And so my great-grandfather decided to abandon Cuba and move his family to Spain, a country to which he had been several times, but only as a visitor. His doctors advised against this, because he was now suffering from Ménière’s disease and the crossing presented a risk to his health. He took no notice, just as he had taken no notice of the beggar all those years before: he hurriedly sold all his land and properties and embarked on the Ciudad de Cádiz with his wife — who was originally from Mexico and whose family name was Custardoy — his six children, and a few servants. When they were not many days away from their destination, Cádiz, he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage on deck and died a few days later, on November 12, near Cape St. Vincent. Possibly by order of General Luque, who was traveling on the steamship with his troops, my great-grandfather’s body was thrown into the sea, weighted down with a cannonball. He was not yet fifty, he was far from his Cuban homeland, and he did not have a grave. I learned recently that he had a strange motto: “Todos somos peores,” literally, “We are each the worst.”
Manera y Cao’s firstborn, Enrique Manera Custardoy, the eldest brother of my grandmother Lola and of Tita María, followed in his father’s military footsteps, in Spain; and in 1921, twenty-three years after his father died on the high seas, he was sent to Morocco with the rank of colonel as an aide-de-camp to General Fernández Silvestre. In the midst of a rout, Fernández Silvestre, Silvestre’s son, a second aide-de-camp, and my great-uncle Enrique — who, in the army, earned the nickname Confucius because of his levelheaded, pithy sayings — were left isolated from the main body of the troops, but with a truck at their disposal. Fernández Silvestre, no doubt an old-fashioned type and perhaps uncertain as to how he would live with that defeat if he survived — or perhaps in order to live up to his nickname, which was none other than the Wild One — refused to abandon the field and flee, and Manera Custardoy, even more old-fashioned, refused to leave his superior officer. Together they persuaded the general’s son to escape in the truck to Melilla and save his skin, which the young man did, accompanied by that second aide-de-camp, whose behavior in the midst of all the confusion and in what followed Tita María always found highly suspicious, and said as much in her modest family memoir. And so Silvestre and Manera were left there to await death.
Nothing more is known of what happened. Their bodies were never found, and all that was left of my great-uncle were his field glasses and the epaulettes showing his rank as colonel, which I once saw in my grandmother’s house and which are now to be found in the War Museum in Madrid. It was feared that the two soldiers met with the worst possible fate, namely, being impaled and then dismembered; and, now that I think of it, it’s strange that those two sweet, cheerful old ladies, my grandmother Lola and Tita María, should have used those terms in the presence of children — of the child I was then — and even explained what they meant. Perhaps that gives you an idea of how times have changed and what a pusillanimous age we live in; of how less than fifty years ago, we children were told about matters of life and death, however horrifying. We did feel afraid, it’s true, but we learned such things early and so could never say later that we had been deceived.
Enrique Manera Custardoy, the eldest son of Enrique Manera y Cao, died at forty-six, far from his two homelands, colonial Havana where he was born and Madrid where he grew up, and he never had a grave and never will. It was almost half a century after that curse or prophecy had been uttered by a Cuban beggar, and on a far-distant continent, that the story came to be much more than an unimportant anecdote to be recounted over lunch. It was there and then that it became part of a story, or more than that, a catalyst. And even though it really happened, it was only at that point that it deserved to be told as a story: when it suddenly seemed like a fiction. Not just a complete story, but one with all the loose ends neatly tied up. So much so that on at least two of the previous occasions when I set it down in writing, I added the odd loose end that the story lacked: I said once, for example, that the curse fell not only on the eldest son of the person being cursed but also on the eldest son of the eldest son, who, in my story, would never be born, and I began speculating on the incomplete part of a prophecy whose first two stages had been fulfilled to perfection. I did actually know the third Enrique Manera, Manera Regueyra, and he lived into old age. He was an admiral and enjoyed telling how, during the civil war, he had survived two firing squads, on both occasions thanks to his short stature, because the bullets had been aimed above his head. Then again, he also described how he had sunk a submarine by hammering on it with his bare fists, so who knows. Anyway, in real life, the curse proved true since it said, “You and your eldest son,” and not, as I have sometimes written, “You and your eldest son, and the eldest son of your eldest son…”
Who was the first person to tell me about that curse? Doubtless my grandmother Lola, who was in the habit of telling me such stories, which she, in turn, had been told as a child by her nanny in Havana. Women are always the main passers-on of facts and fictions. It’s as if they instinctively know the precept put forward by Isak Dinesen: “Only if you can imagine what has happened and repeat it in imagination will you see the stories, and only if you have the patience to carry them inside you for a long time and to tell and retell them will you be able to tell them well.”
Therein lies one of the keys to literature: when you describe or introduce into a fiction something that really happened, the only acceptable and credible way of doing so is to pass it through the imagination and be capable of telling it as if it hadn’t happened. And perhaps it’s the same process with invented stories, stories that are born directly out of the imagination and have never happened: you have to imagine that they really did happen, so that you can then reimagine them as something that never happened. That is the territory of literature, a territory that doesn’t care where the material comes from, because that material comes and goes incessantly. And in the end, its various origins will be indistinguishable and of no importance, because the filter of the imagination renders everything equal. The territory of literature is one of vagueness and mist, of darkness and uncertainty, in which, nevertheless, we see, more clearly than we ever do in life, everything that we decide should be a part of it. And the most astonishing thing is that everything can become a part of it, the true and the imagined, facts and daydreams, the verifiable and the unverifiable, the known and the unknown, what actually happened and what never did, what is told to us by witnesses and what could never be witnessed, like that curse my great-grandfather may simply have made up in order to liven up the lunch table.