The Spanish novelist Javier Mar¡as has the ability, which he shares with Italo Calvino, to turn a metaphysical insight into a novelistic adventure. In his latest book, Mar¡as employs the old gambit of a novel within a novel, but the radical twist is that the novel on the inside is one of Mar¡as's real, previous novels All Souls. All Souls revolved around various fictitious and nonfictitious Oxford personalities, and was inspired by Mar¡as's temporary teaching position at the university in the early '80s. In the present novel, Mar¡as learns, to his dismay, that various factual Oxford personages upon whom various fictional personages were based are taking over his novel, in effect, by extrapolating fictitious facts from partial facts that were embedded in the original fiction. For instance, the fictitious narrator of All Souls has an affair with a married woman, Clare Bayes. This is translated, in the Oxford community, as proof that the real Mar¡as had a real affair with a woman at Oxford, who is variously identified. Other misidentifications and misreadings follow. In one of the funniest scenes, Mar¡as returns to an antiquarian bookstore in Oxford and finds that the couple who own it, the Stones, not only identify with the bookstore-owning Alabasters in his novel, but want to play them in the film version of the book. Meanwhile, the film, in a final turn of the screw, turns out to be a complete distortion of the novel. The second half of this novel is a virtuoso digression on the seedily adventurous circle around a minor British poet and Oxford figure, Gawsworth. Mar¡as has an antiquarian's taste for history's minor characters, in whose lives fact flows easily into fiction and back again.
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Dark Back of Time [has] confirmed Marías's status as Spain's leading writer of fiction. -- Bomb
Marìas...plays elegantly with the power of art and the mystery of memory. -- Village Voice, 6 March 2001
[Marìas] is a literary magician who understands literature as a game of mirrors. -- Ilan Stavans, The Nation, 19 March 2001
[S]heer pleasure, not to be taken lightly or read swiftly. -- Maine Courier-Gazette, Marilis Hornidge, 14 June 2001