Voyage Along the Horizon
The reputation of Spanish novelist Javier Marias is such that the blurb on the back of his newly issued Voyage Along the Horizon describing the author as a Nobel candidate feels more like an understatement than a boast. That said, it takes more than a Nobel, whether anticipated or received, to make a foreign-language author a household name in the States. This slim, lively volume, first published in 1972 and written when Marias was 21, attempts to breach that divide, presenting the writer at his most playful and poppy. Whereas later works such as The Man of Feeling and the exquisite All Souls weave a dense, introspective headspace similar to those conjured by such compulsively readable masters as Jose Saramago and Thomas Bernhard, this early novel--Marias’ second--contents itself with colorful characters and a light, fantastical plot that proceeds at a lively clip.
A spoof/homage of 19th-century exploration novels, Voyage also engages in the kinds of playful folding and unfolding of narrative levels favored by such works as Don Quixote and The Saragossa Manuscript: an unnamed narrator sits and listens to a socialite named Holden Branshaw reading a short adventure novel (titled Voyage Along the Horizon) by his dead friend Edward Ellis, which depicts the exploits of a group of artistic types aboard the deranged Captain Kerrigan’s Tallahassee; the passengers tell each other stories, and, inevitably, there are stories within these stories. This structure allows Marias to experiment with a number of different styles and tones; a layover in Alexandria evokes some hot and hazy atmospherics à la Naguib Mahfouz, whereas a bizarre kidnapping is pure Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Books so constructed allow you to delight in hopping from voice to voice, keeping you on your toes to remember whom the "I" signifies at any given moment. That said, Marias subverts these pleasures by turning in a short work that doesn’t allow many individual tales to develop fully; not only do several stories intentionally end ambiguously or anticlimactically, but more than once a storyteller denounces the quality of his or her story after its telling. In an interview attached to this volume, Marias argues that the ends of novels are rarely important or remembered--it’s the voyage that matters. Perhaps instead it’s a satisfying ending that can elevate a good "voyage" to great in readers’ minds, for, while impressive that Marias was capable of producing Voyage’s breezy charms at such a young age, for both readability and depth it can’t hold a candle to his later, fully realized and artfully ending works.