Exotic Minutiae

A new novel imagines the psychology of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murderer with vivid, obsessive historical detail.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

James Earl Ray was an eclectic reader. His nightstand in the weeks following his assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 could have theoretically included the novel Mission in Tangier, the self-help book Psycho-Cibernetics, or a manual on hypnotism. At any given time, his floor could’ve been littered with old copies of the Times of London, the Daily Telegraph, the International Herald Tribune, or the Financial Times. He even collected brochures for trips to South Africa in a drawer, underlining the names of cities and calculating exchange rates in the margins. For 10 days during his two-month-long flight from the authorities, he stored all of these materials in a first-floor room at the Hotel Portugal in Lisbon, to which he checked in at 1:15 a.m. on May 8 and checked out at 9 a.m. on May 17.

Ray’s brief stint in Lisbon is the raison d’être for Antonio Muñoz Molina’s new novel Like a Fading Shadow. Details of all kinds—“this primitive city had no hot dog stands”—dot the novel like an oversprinkled poppy seed bagel, adding opioid-levels of in-person flavor to a bare-bones historical conceit. Muñoz Molina, a Spanish writer who lives in the U.S. but who had not, until now, devoted a novel to the history of his adopted home, is no stranger to archival minutiae. His last novel, In the Night of Time, which clocked in at over 600 pages, reconstructed the early days of the Spanish Civil War with the precision of a miniaturist.

Though half the length, Like a Fading Shadow pays similar attention to detail and, at times, even reads like an FBI file. Everything—where Ray eats, what aliases he uses, how his interactions with people unfold—is cataloged in a repetitive and seemingly endless list, making the sheer amount of research it took to pull off palpable: hours upon hours of reading, digesting, and interpreting countless books, once-classified files, documentaries, interviews, and reports. These lists sometimes overstay their welcome, which appears to be the point. Muñoz Molina himself even seems to acknowledge the tedium of trying to narrate inventories of facts: “Trivial yet exact details give a misleading sense of omniscience,” he writes about Ray’s creeping paranoia, and perhaps his own. Beware, “The past is full of exotic minutiae.”

Muñoz Molina writes, of course, from personal experience. His own obsession with a seemingly insignificant plot point in Ray’s two months as a fugitive—his 10-day visit to Lisbon—brings him back, in 2012, to the place where, in 1987, he began researching his breakout novel Winter in Lisbon. Like a Fading Shadow gives us the story about what Ray might’ve been up to in Portugal, but it also chronicles Muñoz Molina’s own two visits there. It proceeds by alternating chapters: one on James Earl Ray’s meanderings through Lisbon, another on Muñoz Molina’s own escapades in the city.

The chapters on Ray, which unfold in true crime–like fashion, appear to be lightly fictionalized, mostly with regard to Ray’s inner life—his musings on everything from James Bond to what his alias should be. The novel gets its novel-ness from uniting such disparate genres as true crime and literary memoir, and then producing some kind of meaning from the link between the two. But what comes out of Muñoz Molina’s literary particle accelerator remains, for the duration of the novel, an indecipherable mystery. Of all the chapters, the ones filled to the brim with historical trinkets about the spring of 1968—dates, places, names, and other negligible information—prove to be the most engrossing. At their best, these chapters recall Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, one part of which treats readers to a lyrical enumeration of the facts behind a slew of femicides in a fictionalized Ciudad Juárez. Each novel, in its own way, is uncompromisingly straightforward and morbidly gripping.

Reading about Ray and his surroundings in such detail, one has the sensation of following Ray from behind, as though watching Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant. Whatever sense of omniscience we get derives from the hindsight of history, from Muñoz Molina’s feverish attention to the archive. Unlike in Van Sant’s film, though, we are treated merely to Ray’s unexceptional and unilluminating thoughts. We witness his mind, for instance, cast Sen. Joe McCarthy as the heroic criminal prosecutor in a film. The film, predictably, doesn’t end well. “It was inevitable that they would target him,” he muses, “just as they went after Hitler and Mussolini, that they slander and ruin him just as they did to them.” (The English translation curiously omits the two proper nouns.) Apart from asides such as this one, we learn precious little about Ray’s racism and unsavory political associations. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing more to learn. Nearly 20 years ago, Gerald Posner, in his book about Ray, Killing the Dream, presented this history in full Technicolor. And Ray himself published two autobiographies while in prison. Need we delve into the tired terrain of criminal psychology yet again?

Criminal psychology, no, Muñoz Molina seems to say; but crime scene reconstruction, yes. By the end of the novel, we leave Lisbon and follow Muñoz Molina to Memphis. With him, we examine the famous Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel where King was shot while out on the balcony. He describes the bullet that struck him in the neck as he turned to walk back into the room as well as the .38-caliber Liberty Chief revolver (made in Japan) that Ray had in his back pocket when he was arrested at Heathrow. But what most takes Muñoz Molina aback is the aura of seeing everything for himself. “If I hadn’t come here, I would not have known that Martin Luther King’s room was facing west,” he informs us. His last several chapters develop a kind of awe for the rooms themselves, King’s and Ray’s, arranged as they were the day of the murder; for the sight lines from Room 5B at 422 South Main St., where Ray took aim at King; and for the dozens of calculations Ray must have made in a matter of seconds in order to complete his escape route from the onrushing police.

The pleasure of Muñoz Molina’s absorbing chapters on Ray, however, are weighed down by the chapters dedicated to his memoirs set in Lisbon. Only the most dedicated Muñoz Molina scholar might find something of value in chapter-length collages of writerly anxieties, boilerplate theories of the novel, and overdramatized memories of an overripe affair. One could be forgiven for assuming that these chapters might, in the end, yield some kind of a payoff. But they don’t, and by the time we reach the last few chapters, in which he uses part of the memoir to counterproductively compare the objects in the murder with “the barber’s basin in Don Quixote, the vial of poison that Emma Bovary drank, the glasses and bandages of Wells’s Invisible Man,” it’s not entirely clear why they exist at all.

Contemporary Spanish novelists love to blur the line between fantasy and history—Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis is a good example of this—and Muñoz Molina has made his career on writing such novels. Like a Fading Shadow is no exception. Muñoz Molina seems almost desperate to woo us into thinking we are reading nonfiction. With such obsessive fidelity to small details from the archival record, the novel ultimately makes the case that the recovery of any “historical memory” should distrust memoir as a form overall, even while Muñoz Molina deliberately collapses the boundaries between fiction and fact. First-person storytelling, the novel seems to say, should be reserved for matters of love, aesthetics, and anecdotes, not for weighty questions of history.

Many in Spain, where Like a Fading Shadow was originally published in 2014, would disagree. For the past 17 years, Spaniards have been locating the mass graves where Franco dumped his victims, often on the strength of personal stories. The key to unearthing the bodies of Franco’s victims, they might say, starts with empowering people to finally speak openly about what happened to their grandmothers and grandfathers during the Spanish Civil War. The way they see it, “historical memory” is, above all, a first-person endeavor. Muñoz Molina is lucky: After 50 years, he has a treasure trove of documents that spell out Ray’s every move in Lisbon. He can write a historical novel that manages to detail the minutiae of the man’s last few days of freedom. Spaniards, conversely, have found precious little archival material that survived the four decades of the Franco regime. They have to rely only on personal memories instead.

Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

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