First, I recommending that you read Mike Puma's review
, since he provides such a thoughtful and comprehensive picture of this novel. Mike's accomplishment is all the more impressive because of the unique style and approach Marías takes in this novel. Is he writing a memoir or a novel? Is he providing historical analysis based on primary documents, or presenting a fictional depiction of historical characters? What is real? What relationship do storytelling and narrative play in our constructing our past as well as our present? Marías purposively and brilliantly explodes genre boundaries as he plays with themes having to do with reality and fiction, and the difficulty in distinguishing between them.
In Dark Back of Time, Marías begins with a humorous, affectionate, and (sometimes) exasperated depiction of the reception of his novel All Souls, which many friends and former colleagues take to be a roman á clef based on Marías's time spent in Oxford University. As Marías repeatedly insists that the novel sprung mainly from his imagination, he moves from a discussion of his novel to examinations of minor historical figures who appeared in the novel, through the lens of myriad historical documents - newspaper articles, oral histories, written documentation, and photographs, among others.
As a historian, I especially appreciated Marías's treatment of historical sources, which he understands to be fictions in their own way, based on the very different perspectives and motivations of their creators. I've always loved it when authors present a scrapbook of sources, not tidied up neatly in a clear story (although that also has its place), but with all the loose ends, ambiguities, and contradictions in place. This love of complexity and nuance is part of what interested me in studying history in the first place. There is something so human and involving to me about all those ragged edges of the past. As Marías says, "facts in themselves are nothing, language cannot reproduce them just as any number of repetitions, with their sharp edges, cannot reproduce the time that is past or gone, or revive the dead who have already gone past us and been lost in that time. And at this point who knows what has become real and what has become fictitious." (330) The blurred lines between fiction and reality are complex, messy, part of being human.
Marías' approach to understanding the past has all the elements of complexity and nuance that I describe above. He notes the accretions of the past on the written word, as well as what we lose through death and the dimming of memory: "With the passage or loss of time, old books are no longer text and binding alone but also what their former readers have left in them over the years, marks, comments, exclamations, profanities, photographs, dedications or ex libris, a letter, sheet of paper or signature, a waterspot, burn or stain or simply their names, as the books' owners." (286) Marías also makes a place for what he refers to as the dark back of time - a place where events and nonevents converge, where paths not taken, brothers lost at a young age, and parallel lives still carry on, and can be recovered if we are open to them.
This book is very highly recommended for readers who are open to Marîas' creative, philosophical, lyrical, and personal approach.