(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Dark Back of Time concentrates on the author’s experience with his past novel All Souls (the English version of his Todas las almas) and on the story of a writer, Wilfrid Ewart (Sir John Spencer Ewart), and an adventurer, Olaff de Wet.

To the extent that it is fiction in a classic sense, Dark Back of Time presents, besides these major characters and several subsidiary characters, a protagonist (the narrator) with a critical objective: to understand the properties of fiction and time. This novel is also fiction in a contemporary sense in that it comments, in the manner of an essay, on the objective that animates it.

According to Dark Back of Time, the narrator/author comes into conflict with persons who suppose themselves the source of characters in All Souls, which surprises him since he hardly knows many of these people (that he knows them at all is due to his sojourn as a professor at Oxford University at the time he was writing All Souls). He is especially surprised, for example, when he finds out that “as a result of my novel, there is now a professor at Oxford whom everyone believes to be an adulteress.” He has no idea who this person is, and this leads him to see that fiction is not confined to the life inside it, but can extend to the life outside it. Fiction can also have an effect on the actual life of those who mistake themselves for characters in it, as in the case of Toby Ryland, who was first angered to see himself connected with espionage in Haiti—a secret he never told the author of All Souls—then delighted that the character he has no connection with from the author’s point of view says what he (Ryland) considers the best statement in the novel: “To whom does the sick man’s will belong? To the sick man or to the disease?”

Another example of people who misrepresent characters in fiction is Mr. and Mrs. Stone, booksellers in Oxford whom the author visits after the appearance of All Souls. In a public interview, they not only assume they are the source for the bookseller couple called the Alabasters in the novel, they refute, as the author writes, “What a fictitious narrator had observed about two booksellers who were also fictitious, however much they had borrowed certain details or traits from the Mr. and Mrs. Stone of reality.”

That fiction should be the source of rumors and accounts that are themselves fictitious in content reveals to the author how a person’s actual life may well be as extravagant and unpredictable as any in fiction itself. As Marías says in All Souls of John Gawsworth, the pseudonym of Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong, he is less interested in “the rather average work” of this writer than in “the far from average man,” who, before dying at the age of fifty-eight “as an Oxford beggar,” had not only traveled to exotic places in Africa and India, but become, having inherited the position from his mentor, the king of the island of Redonda in the Antilles, which inspires him to bestow royal titles on, among others, the writers Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell.

In this vein of the extravagant and improbable, Marías goes on to catalog his research into the life of Wilfrid Ewart and Olaff de Wet. Perhaps because Ewart was a writer himself, if all but forgotten, his mysterious death overwhelms Marías’s attention. Ewart, it turns out, managed to survive a four-year stint in the trenches of World War I, even though he was blind in one eye. However, it was not until after traveling in the western United States and finally to Mexico City, that he came, at the age of thirty, to an end as improbable as his survival during the war: On New Year’s Eve, 1922, as he stood on the balcony (which actually may not have existed) of his hotel room, a stray bullet from the festivities in the street below struck him in his blind eye—believe it or not—and killed him.

That fiction should not have to rely on itself for such peculiar occurrences is further demonstrated by the adventures (in themselves prone to exaggeration in the accounts of them available to Marías) of Olaff de Wet, a wandering mercenary pilot originally from South Africa. De Wet wrote, in his book The Cardboard Crucifix (1938), of his life as a pilot for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (having been rejected by Franco’s side because he flew for Haile Selassie against Benito Mussolini in the Abyssinian War), and in The Valley of the Shadow (1949) of his internment, after being condemned to death by the German Gestapo, as a spy for the “Deuxieme Bureau, the French equivalent of the British Intelligence Service.”

The incident in de Wet’s life that most attracts Marías is his supposed...

(The entire section is 1953 words.)