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.
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.
Sometimes I recall those memories of my father and me in his garage and view them cinematically. Jutting images of deep emotional warmth, close-up frames of his pallid head, his face folding in wrinkled gaiety. The stories we shared were the background music of our film. Quaint abstract close-up of my fingers holding a cigarette, smoke rising in creeping braids, the lens focusing past the smoke to my father’s face, his head bent forward in meditation, listening. In the garage we were safe. The world had its troubles, its violence and fakery, its small-mindedness. Our world was in the garage beneath the bright fluorescent glow, it was the two of us learning, reaching into parts of ourselves and pulling out the truths, extending them out for the other to take and digest. The garage was retreat, lectern, prayer room. I view those deep moments in montage, powerful imagery flashing about the screen of my mind, the moments before the credits roll up from the disconnected abyss.
Then in the garage one Saturday afternoon he collapsed to the ground and couldn’t move. His legs wouldn’t support him. He was conscious but his brain wasn’t communicating with his limbs. The overhead door was opened wide to the sunshine. I’ll never forget his face, that expression of shock, understanding, submission, helpless analysis. My father knew in that instant that he had been beaten by his own mortality. It had stepped in front of him and choked him down. How sudden and jarring death claims our attention. How strange to be alive and commanding one moment, a sycophant the next. He saw the rest of his life spread out thinly before him, the decay, the mindlessness, the vibrato and stink of his organs shutting down. He realized in that flashing madness that he wouldn’t live another month.
I helped him to his feet while my stepmother called the hospital. He was still stunned in silent thought. I could see the fear and awe on his face. He knew he was looking straight into the heart of that wide visceral truth. He thought he had envisioned it, he told himself repeatedly that he was ready. As I set him in his folding chair and lit him a cigarette, he realized he hadn’t even known what ready meant.
Just before my stepmother drove the two of them out of the garage and down the driveway to my father’s sun-soaked reckoning, I took off my necklace and placed it in his hand. He was almost too weak to hang on to it. I said I would meet them at the hospital and watched them drive away, the car shrinking away from me into the luminous maw, my hand where my chain had been and that naked, vulnerable feeling there.
Everywhere I look is where I see him.
Downtown city streets awash in morning glow, throng of heads bobbing with the tide of rote obligation. Lives wholly separate but flowing together, a predesigned uniform cause. Thousands of personal histories carrying their preternatural weight, their stories. These are intersecting bloodlines, divergent strains of DNA coiled in distinct splendor, yet each of them anonymous and irrelevant when condensed by the crowd. Personal struggles no longer matter. Children and time and detailed subplots are trampled and forgotten underfoot. Fifteen paces up ahead a man turns his head in profile and the cold sunlight splashes his face, my father’s face, a snapshot frozen in memory long after the man regains his centeredness, facing forward.
I quicken my pace, my eyes stuck on the back of his head. The image remains branded into my mind and my father resurfaces, not just his image or his face the way I remember it but his chided spirit, what it meant to be my father in this world, his burden of strain and deep disconnected habit. In a span of seconds I’m thinking of how my father’s legacy is imbedded in my body and mind. I’m thinking of my commitment to him, of our brief interaction on this planet and its stranglehold on everything I touch. It was just a stranger in a blinking moment of illusion but it was also my father, a careful revelation into my origins, a walking memory of a man that has become so much more than flesh and blood.
The crowd seems to thicken, to intensify in density, a calculated frustration of my pursuit. I move faster, sweating now in the morning frost, hoping he’ll turn again. Next time I’ll get a better look, I’ll prove to myself that it is just a stranger and not my dead father. It couldn’t possibly be him, the man I hated and loved, the man upon whom my own genetic habits and tendencies were patterned. I walk faster still, his steps matching mine. He moves at a rate of imminent escape.
An old man stands against a giant gray building and plays songs on his battered guitar, the case open and virginal in front of him. His face is scrunched into the drawl of a song, a slow expression compressed by years of struggle. He looks nothing like my father. His song is beautiful, a steady weaving lament of molten silk, and in this brief encounter I’m saddened by the way it gets lost in the bawl of activity. The streets throb with the morning crowd, an aura written in plumes of people’s steam, the vehicle exhaust. Paper coffee cups and flickering traffic lights and cellular phones. The history of the city is written in the rebirth of the morning, in the success and toil and steel and glass and concrete of yesterday, the forgetfulness, the failed dreams scrawled in stained sidewalk residue. I look up and the likeness of my father has gone, merged into the confluence of everyone and everything.