When should you read this book? In Lisbon, probably.
Antonio Muñoz Molina’s short-lister contains two tales, bound by their shared location: Lisbon, Portugal.
The first is the story of James Earl Ray, the man who assassinated Martin Luther King. Whilst on the run, he spends ten days in Lisbon evading capture.
Decades apart, the author also arrives, looking for a setting for his novel, in a city he comes to see as transformative both for himself and for Ray.
Tracking an assassin
Muñoz Molina has obviously done his research – every step James Earl Ray took in Lisbon is documented, from bars he frequented to hotels he stayed at.
Muñoz Molina then fills in the gaps with his own characterisation, filling his version of the killer with self-doubt, anxiety and social tics.
James Earl Ray is certainly an odd choice to write about. The assassin of one of the world’s most beloved figures? Not the easiest choice for a biography.
However, there is a distance between us and Ray. We are never allowed into his thoughts, his private life – we view everything from the outside.
Yet when we meet the man himself, Martin Luther King, we are allowed an all-access pass into his mind – so it can’t be that the author is too timid to put imagined thoughts into the head of a real person.
It’s my guess that this is how Muñoz Molina deals with the need to make it evident that we are not meant to sympathise with his protagonist James Earl Ray. We’re merely there to observe.
It could also be a statement that in Muñoz Molina’s mind, Ray’s motivations in murdering Martin Luther King will always be beyond our understanding.
Feel bad for wife #1
The sections of the story which cover Muñoz Molina’s own life are essentially about how he writes an earlier novel, using Lisbon as its setting.
This includes some lines about his relationship with his wife, whom I came to feel very sorry for – not just because he abandons her and their newborn to go to Lisbon and write his book, but because he finds his second wife while they are still together (and writes much more effusively about her!).
Romantic as these odes to wife #2 are, I couldn’t really forgive the author for this. Indeed, wives #1, #2, children and gainful employment all seem to be fair game when sacrificing to the great gods of noble literature.
I’m not sure I’m on board with this, and furthermore while I was thinking: ‘shame! Shame on you!’ I was distracted from the plotline.
But then morality doesn’t seem to be an area that Muñoz Molina wants to engage with – despite there being ample subject matter he could have used as a diving board.
James Earl Ray’s flight is dealt with as a curious detail of Lisbon’s history. There is precious little ink spilt over trying to come to terms with the crime he committed or indeed providing much reason behind the murder.
It seems that rather than getting to the nitty-gritty of the criminal case, ‘Like a Fading Shadow’ is a love letter to writing, to Lisbon, and probably to the author himself, with this odd little fragment of history being used as a vehicle.
As the only element which draws these two stories together, Lisbon is beautifully crafted.
We are treated to glorious descriptions of areas like the Boca do Inferno, a natural cliff face leading down to crashing waters. The author decides that he will invent a character purely so he can fall to his untimely death amidst the frothing currents.
It must be said that moments like this are what really makes the novel. You could make a perfectly good book by removing all the references to James Earl Ray and keeping only those where the author explores Lisbon and thinks up ideas for his novel.
The same couldn’t really be said for keeping all the James Earl Ray bits, because essentially we’re just reading about what he did in Lisbon, and there’s no depth of feeling there.
Overall I leave ‘Like a Fading Shadow’ with mixed feelings. First up it must be said that it is beautifully written, and lovingly translated – it is a fluid and, at times, quite meditative read which covers themes like the nature of literature, and the cost of following one’s vocation.
Interestingly, it is consistently marketed as a book about James Earl Ray – whereas I found it to be a book about Antonio Muñoz Molina writing a book about James Earl Ray.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But whether you see this as a vehicle for meditations on Muñoz Molina’s life’s work – or a little bit of self-indulgence on the author’s part – will be the choice of each individual reader.
How did you find my Man Booker series? Would you be interested to see more series on The Shelf?
Next up: After the heavyweight fiction of my Man Booker series, I’ll be trying something a little lighter in the non-fiction category – ‘Them’ by Jon Ronson.