Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina
“The world is a moving maze of signs,” Muñoz Molina writes early in his kaleidoscopic new novel Like a Fading Shadow. It’s a potent warning of what’s to come: partly an autobiographical writing memoir, Like a Fading Shadow shifts ethereally into new directions as it unfolds. Muñoz Molina is a character in his own story: he narrates every other chapter with arresting digressions about writing prose and its immersive rhythmic possibilities. These writerly reflections run on two concurrent timelines: most of the book follows a young Muñoz Molina in 1987 around the time of the completion of his early novel A Winter in Lisbon but an aged, present-day author is there as well. He provides an additional layer of wisdom and lends the novel a tricky temporal refraction.
But, there’s a third thread: a meticulously researched third-person biography of a criminal on the lam — a sinister story on this mirror’s verso. It is dizzying and confounding to read as these threads blur into overlay, and astonishing (albeit somewhat exhausting) to witness Muñoz Molina disappear into the novel’s tangled timelines. “I’m living in two worlds and two times, in the same city,” he writes.
Discussing the identity of this true-life criminal is a personal point of contention, as I feel the novel’s jacket flap, cover artwork, and marketing team do the book a great disservice in revealing what Muñoz Molina is actually up to. The criminal’s true name appears only a handful of times throughout the novel and I find it difficult to believe that the author would want readers to watch him dance around this revelation while knowing already who the novel is actually about. It’s 1968, between late spring and early summer. This criminal had previously escaped from prison, and appears to be fleeing a major incident. He’s perpetually nervous, travelling under the anagrammatic-sounding pseudonym of Ramon George Sneyd. He’s made it to Lisbon, where he has to stay for a few days while he attempts to collect the travel documents that would allow him to disappear into Africa. Nearly two decades later, the young Muñoz Molina would be drawn to this same city while working on his novel.
Muñoz Molina renders Sneyd with stunning clarity and his biographical clout showcases how easy it is for a writer to get lost in their subject. He’s almost obsessed with Sneyd and how a human could be capable of what he did. He writes with a clinical, observational eye that’s nearly sympathetic in its detailed study. Sneyd is drawn to psycho-cybernetics and detective novels and repeatedly considers his actions in terms of what Ian Fleming would have had James Bond do in a 007 tale. Muñoz Molina adopts a mesmerizing hard-boiled cadence with his descriptions, clearly influenced by the jazz and pulp that flows through both threads of the novel. (The musicality of Like A Fading Shadow is particularly marvelous in that it is translated from its original Spanish; non-Spanish speakers will find plenty here at which to marvel.)
The novel’s theoretical digressions are remarkable and read like a book-length, episodic essay in parts. Further, they relate brilliantly in situ with the novel’s somewhat convoluted machinations: “A novel is a state of mind,” Muñoz Molina writes, “a warm interior where you seek refuge as you write.” Sneyd and a younger version of the author are meanwhile trying to disappear in stories of their own creation. “The state of mind is born with the novel and ends with it. It is a house that feels like your own but where you will never live again, a music that will cease to exist when you stop playing….Every day of work is sustained by the anticipation of the end, its promising proximity.” It’s remarkable to consider how both criminal and author work endlessly towards a final curtain, “an unstoppable progress toward a conclusion.”
Unfortunately, Muñoz Molina isn’t able to maintain this momentum to the end of Like a Fading Shadow. As fascinating as it is frustrating, the book’s final phase peels back a new layer as Sneyd recreates a “fictionalized” account of his own actions after he’s (inevitably) caught. This is a heady turn for the novel and one that is in line with the author’s overarching thesis about telling stories in order to hide, but the more enjoyable and impressive elements of the book fade away in order to hammer in these ideas. What remains is a powerful but conceptually baggy novel about the author as fugitive, unraveling through layers of hidden history.