The assassin vanishes
IN Like A Fading Shadow – first published in Spain in 2014, now benefiting from a gorgeous English translation – Antonio Muñoz Molina tackles three interlinked narratives like a man playing three instruments simultaneously. As with such a feat, the skill he exhibits appears almost impossible.
There is that of James Earl Ray, known to history as the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr, a strange, sad, self-deluded man whose life has been one long, incoherent catalogue of desperation. Lisbon is the point of connection between narrative strands; Ray spent a week in the city during 1968 while on the run for King’s murder, while Molina ended up in Portugal’s capital as a young writer in 1987, researching what would become his breakthrough novel. Finally, there is the modern Molina, poring through records of Ray’s life while reflecting on his own.
Like A Fading Shadow not only breaks boundaries – joining the novel, memoir, history and biography in such a natural and unassuming fashion, the stitching is invisible – but also many of the rules that more self-indulgent writers require to discipline themselves. It is, as much as anything else, that spectre which countless creative writing teachers have warned against, a book about its own writing. It is also further proof as to why those teachers are often wrong.
As a writer, Molina interrogates himself and the literary project he has embarked upon far more than his criminal subject, and the rewards for doing so are plentiful. The resultant work alternates between a sparing employment of novelistic techniques, and a forensic questioning of fiction itself. Metafiction, so often cheaply and inexpertly applied elsewhere, shows its tremendous power in Molina’s hands.
Like A Fading Shadow reminds the reader of other great books, but only in ways that confirm its own distinctiveness. Already, Molina’s hybrid has inspired comparisons with Libra, Don DeLillo’s speculative, postmodern elegy for JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, which similarly
resisted romanticising or psychoanalysing its infamous subject, but lacked Molina’s ambition.
In the several versions of himself that inhabit the exposed mechanics of Molina’s fiction, there is more than a hint of the poet Fernando Pessoa, another Lisbon resident; yet Molina, however reluctantly, has an attachment to the world Pessoa sought to sever. Echoes of James Ellroy can be found in the terse, staccato accounts of Ray’s travels and eccentricities, his inner life haunting the endless details culled from Molina’s mountainous research, but Molina – perhaps due to his Spanish nationality – lacks Ellroy’s obsession with the character of the United States, preferring that of human individuals. In perspective, style and even its understated humour, Like a Fading Shadow is a rewardingly un-American book.
Molina has no interest in turning a fundamentally unimpressive murderer into a mythic, larger-than-life figure, nor does he seek to make himself the hero of his own story. His intention, wonderfully vindicated, is to show that the meaning of stories themselves, be they true or fictional, are best demonstrated in the telling.
Like A Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina