I read Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías and translated by Esther Allen, as part of Novellas in November, but am only getting around to reviewing this little gem now.
Coming in at a mere 56 pages, Bad Nature is one of those books that is perfectly formed but you wish would last for hundreds of pages. Juxtaposing fertile humour with thrilling drama, the novella opens with a philosophical exploration on what it means to be hunted.
No one knows what it’s like to be hunted down without having lived it, and unless the chase was active and constant, carried out with deliberation, determination, dedication and never a break, with perseverance and fanaticism, as if the pursuers had nothing else to do in life but look for you, keep after you, follow your trail, locate you, catch up with you and then, at best, wait for the moment to settle the score.
This highly enjoyable rhetorical digression remains at the back of the readers mind as Marías segues from the abstract to the actual narrative, which, at the beginning, is incredibly entertaining.
Elvis Presley is in Acapulco, filming Fun in Acapulco, although it will later be suggested that Elvis never came to Acapulco at all. Our narrator is Ruibérriz or “Roy Berry,” a Spanish-born translator who has been hired to coach the King into sounding more Spanish than the Mexicans he’ll be performing alongside.
Roy gets along well with Elvis, whom he likes and admires, but the irony of Elvis trying to get an accent perfect in the midst of such a lazy production is not lost on him.
I don’t really know what the plot of the film was supposed to be, and not because it was too complicated; on the contrary, it’s hard to follow a plot when there is no story line and no style to substitute for one or distract you… All I know is that Elvis Presley, the tortured former trapeze artist, as I said—but he’s only tortured sometimes, he also spends a lot of time going swimming, perfectly at ease, and uninhibitedly romancing women—wanders around Acapulco, I don’t remember why… As is logical and necessary, Elvis sings and dances in various places: a cantina, a hotel, a terrace facing the daunting cliff. From time to time he stares, with envy and some kind of complex, at the swimmers—or rather, divers—who plunge into the pool with tremendous smugness from a diving board of only average height.
Marias portrays Elvis and his hangers on with a wonderful laconic wit, slyly puncturing the unreality of the world they live in, without sacrificing any warmth. Elvis enjoys Roy’s company and is serious about his work and it is this mutual respect that will be Roy’s downfall.
The novella changes tone when Roy, Elvis and some of his gang fly to a neighbouring city for a night out, visiting seedy bars and cantinas where Elvis can pass virtually unknown. Things go wrong when a member of Elvis’s entourage gets into a scuffle with a local gangster and a furious Elvis insults him.
As his official translator, it is Roy who must deliver Elvis’s biting slurs and therefore Roy who must accept the consequences, as Elvis is bundled back to the safety of his private plane. When Elvis has left the building, never to return, Roy is left to drunkenly fend off the gangsters, who hold him solely responsible for the insults, because they came from his mouth.
I only had to try to get them to forgive me for words that were not mine – though they had been on my lips, or had become real only through my lips, I was the one who had divulged or deciphered them – but that was incredible, how could they hold me guilty for something that didn’t proceed from my head or my will or my spirit?
Bad Nature is perfectly paced, with the second half of the book hanging on what happens while Elvis and his friends are in the bar. It’s taut and sometimes terrifying but that vein of black humour continues to pulse throughout.
The moment in which Roy chooses his words in conveying Elvis’s insult to the gangsters is thick with tension, and raises questions about the art and authenticity of translation. By leaving some of the exchange in the original Spanish, Marías and his translator Esther Allen convey the frustration that comes from not understanding what is being said to you.
How much of what is translated is due to interpretation? Is Elvis to blame for the violence that ensues, or should Roy have mis-translated what Elvis said to save them all?
As the novella barrels towards it’s climactic, fraught final scenes, it comes full circle and the opening pages about being hunted reveal their true meaning. With astonishing skill Marías brings his story full circle, urging the reader back to the opening pages, tempted to reread the story again armed with foreknowledge of what is to come.
Marías is considered to be one of Spain’s greatest fiction writers and on the back of this brief novella, I can see why. In a mere 56 pages he infuses a slight story with philosophical meditation, a fully engaging character and incisive humour to create something unforgettable.
Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico is an example of the novella at its affecting best and I look forward to readinG more of Marías’ work.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 296
NUMBER REMAINING: 450
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!