Muñoz Molina on the novel

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The novel subjects itself to its own limits and at the same time opens itself up to an exploration of depths that are within and without (the writer) and that only (the writer) was meant to discover. You’re writing even when you don’t write. Narrative imagination does not feed on what is invented; It feeds on the past. Every minor or trivial event that one experiences or discovers in the course of an investigation can be valuable or even decisive for the novel, occupying a minimal but precise place within it, like an uneven cobblestone …

… The novel has developed on its own with the unlimited richness of reality and the blank spaces I haven’t been tempted to fill, spaces in the shadows that cannot be illuminated …

…The novel is what I write and also the room where I work. The novel is the fine-point pen that ran out of ink one day when I wrote for five or six hours without stopping and filled an entire notebook. The novel is made with everything I know and everything I don’t know, and with the sensation of groping my way through this story but never finding a precise narrative outline.

— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow. Translated by Camilo A. Ramirez. Published by Editorial Planeta, S.A., 2014. Translation copyright 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

A memory in algorithm

I see him in those cold sleepless nights of self-embrace. His face somehow shaped into the dark corners of my apartment, his voice alive in the riding midnight wind. I smell him on my skin. I lie in bed, anxious and shivering, trying to fold completely into myself, disappearing, a conscious union with nothingness. This is the subtle lingering effect of years of childhood abuse. I hold my face in my hands, it calms me, breathing into myself. This anxiety is total and physical, a yearning force. I can touch it, discern its jagged shape in my bones. Fear of the world and my place in it washes over me in waves of self-detachment. These are all the violent elements of the past I could never decompress. These are the scenes, the threatening, the bruises and scars and scrapes. This is who I am, fashioned into a creative nucleus. These are the times I am most reminded of him, haunted by his residue, afraid of myself, grateful to the legacy of wrath.

I stare into the mirror and see his face, raw and defined by shadow. He’s there and I’m there, all pigmented and detailed irony. I wonder what it means, looking into his eyes after all these years, all these thoughts in his absence. He’s there and I’m there. I cannot bear to see him so alive and forceful, I cannot look away. He is more handsome now than I ever was.

I see him in complete darkness, I feel his dead hand in my mind. I see him as I did on that day so long ago, studying him in repose, a giant frame of tremendousness. I see him as he must have looked in jail, wearing away the concrete at his feet as he paced through his darkest nights alone. I hear him in every word I write before and after I write it.

The people that knew him, I see him on their faces when I’m talking to them. They see me and they see him. It doesn’t matter what I say. There are no sounds, no revelatory meanings. They can only hear him, they flash back to intimate memories of their own. They wonder who’s trying to trick them, they wonder of it’s me or him.

There are hairs on the back of my hand and I see him there. He is in the morning drain when I shave, loitering about the edges of everything I discard.

Our writer

And then the dust rose, sweeping upward into the pink light of dusk, and men clad in black armor and carrying guns chased the voices in their earpieces up the stairs, shouting commands, and a mile away thousands upon thousands coalesced to hear the words of one man in the dawn of their lives, a crowd amassed and awed into rapture on a crystalline summer night. The helicopter continued to hover before him, thick whapping blades carrying mechanical wind and the chaotic heat of the day, roaring intimidation unlike anything he’d experienced. He stared up through the glass to the faces of the two pilots and he could see their mouths moving and he could see their eyes frozen upon him but he could not discern their message. He half-expected gunfire to rip him apart at the seams of his being, his own blood spraying before him in plumed mists the color of sunset. Death by chopper. He wondered if the men running up the stairs would tackle him to the ground and press their knees into his back and he grimaced with the imagined pain and he could feel the small jutting coarseness of the concrete digging into the side of his face. He stared up at the helicopter and froze. Should he wave, try to convince them he was not a terrorist? Or should he get back in the van, drive it down the ramp? Feet frozen into place by fear, the fragmented buzz in his head distorting his thoughts, bending his mind into patterned confusion and suspicion. He felt like an actor in a film and no one was watching. Already he was trying to figure out how to explain this to someone else.

He thought of time as a snagged thread. The air he breathed. Dust whipping about him in the eye of the chopper storm. He thought of Vietnamese children dug deep in some Mekong trench where they told stories about alien aircraft and giant men with white and black skin from a place called America and he felt the vigor of their dread but nothing of their courage. He looked through the open window of the van to his book lying on the seat, face-down and spread open-winged, the interrupted message, potent talisman of knowledge, and he thought they were going to kill him or arrest him for his thoughts. That’s what this is all about. Incendiary mind, cultivator of dangerous ideas, collector of conflagrant titles. Banned on thirty-three lists worldwide. Because this is the power of ideas, the power of books. They retain the most practical and innocuous guise, glue and folded paper, lines of words on pages. Colors and privation of colors. Patterns and pattern-less. This is their danger. Because hidden inside that trite and compact geometry, books are the most resplendent of weapons. They carry and transmit the ideas of men and women and urge others toward momentous things.

He stood before the chopper and watched the pilots talking into their headsets, he imagined them saying, Suspect is armed. Alpha-three, two-niner. Copy. Looks to be a title from a reclusive American author inside the vehicle. Proceed with caution. Use force. Shoot to kill, they say. He imagines leaden trajectories in the tens of thousands, so many bullets flying in the air they create their own cosmic roar and erase him from the planet entirely.

He looked from the copter to the vacant roof of the parking garage about him. The sky was bleeding pink and red and orange gashes across the expanse of blue. He tried to block out the sound of the helicopter to listen for his cellular phone. Maybe they were trying to call him, the cops, the government. Let’s work something out, they say. Surrender. Negotiate with us. We know what you’re trying to do, rogue operative. Tell us who you’re not working for and what you’ve been thinking. Put your hands in the air. Hand over the book. Lie on your stomach, arms stretched out at your sides. Drop the paperback. He wished the pilots would give him some sort of message. Vacate the roof immediately. Put your hands in the air. Lie on your back, play dead. Prepare for death. Draw a target on your abdomen. Give us another reason to machine-gun you. He wanted them to either shoot him or fly off into the sun or maybe he just hoped for something else to happen because there was a helicopter whirling mad and threatening right on top of him and it was kind of freaking him out.

He himself was a writer. His own formulated plots, the stories, the characters, assassins and provocateurs. The subversive themes. His own ideas, the ebbing flow of lonely and violent delirium. And there were always the innate checks and balances of artists, of writers in particular. The men in the helicopter were trying to read his mind. They’d been following him all these years, since before he acknowledged the value of his own thoughts. The story he wrote about Dylan García, the philosopher-revolutionary, champion of satirical American transformation, government target and agent of sedition. Or the story he wrote about the woman with the prosthetic mind, a government experiment gone awry. The story was a revelation about the power of the human intellect and the dangers inherent in meddling with it. Both stories had been written before but these were his versions, taut and reasoned experiments, both fundamentally charged by the incompetence and tyranny of government officials, and both were slung out there on the Web somewhere with all the others he’d written, messages floating into space and back, carrying their truths out to the cosmos and returning unscathed, unbroken but absorbed by government computers set to intercept dissident communication in all tongues and dialects. The data of the rebel writer. The liberated dreamer and embattled artist. The dangerous, the followed, the hunted, hijacked by the dollar, quoted and exalted in underground communiqués. Recently someone had asked him what was the most difficult thing about being a writer and he answered without thinking, The loneliness.

He was alone now on the roof, or maybe he wasn’t completely alone but he felt alone, staring into the cockpit, two faces staring back. Patriotic sky of red and blue and violet. Frightened beyond words, panic-heightened consciousness. He raised his arms, spread them wide, a formal display to the pilots that he was not carrying any weapons, he was not a threat. He wanted nothing to do with the historic event a mile away. He was not plotting to kill or disrupt the charismatic speaker and he was not concerned with the thousands of followers, their faces glimmering, their eyes melted into a believer’s ecstasy. Our writer waved at the pilots, trying to smile, his face bent into a crooked visage of dishonesty. The buzzing in his head increased. He got back into the van and drove it down the ramp to the level below. He parked and waited for the group of officers to coagulate about him, silent footfalls, their hands on the weapons at their hips, secret tactical formations of duty, his likeness thrust out to the world through the digitized drone of the police scanner. A voice echoed for him to put his hands on the hood of the van and he complied and turned toward the stadium a mile away where the crowd was assembled and waiting to hear one man’s words, promises and declarations of grandeur in the twilight of our writer’s innocence.