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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Two stories of a city, an assassin and an author at large

This dual-novel intertwines the manhunt for Martin Luther King Jr’s killer with the author’s past, writes Lucy Scholes

Part of the novel focuses on the hunt to find Martin Luther King Jr's assassin.  Central Press / Getty Images
Part of the novel focuses on the hunt to find Martin Luther King Jr's assassin. Central Press / Getty Images

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, shot dead on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel (today the National Civil Rights Museum) by James Earl Ray, who fired the fatal shot from a boarding house across the road.

Ray immediately fled the scene in a white Ford Mustang, abandoning a package containing a pair of binoculars and the rifle - which he’d purchased only a few days earlier using the name Harvey Lowmeyer, claiming that he was going on a hunting trip with his brother - covered in his fingerprints.

He drove to Atlanta, before travelling north to Canada, where he lay low while procuring a Canadian passport under the name Ramon George Sneyd, which he then used to fly to the UK, staying briefly in London before heading onward to Portugal.

Ray arrived in Lisbon in late May, and remained in the city for the next 10 days, all the while attempting to get a visa to allow him to sail for Southern Africa; to Angola, or Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe), a country he had long considered emigrating to due to his white supremacist beliefs.

Unsuccessful in his endeavour, though, he returned to London, where he was eventually apprehended: at Heathrow Airport, on June 8, by which time he’d been on the run for two months.

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As Antonio Muñoz Molina puts it here in his novel Like a Fading Shadow, much of which is given over to the dramatisation of Ray’s time evading the authorities: “lists of passengers and passport applications with thousands of names, verified one by one, until they find the odd one out and notice the similarity between the photo of the fugitive and the applicant, Sneyd, Ramon George Sneyd. According to J. Edgar Hoover, there are 3,075 FBI agents assigned exclusively to finding him; so far they have spent $781,407 and the agents have covered 332,849 miles; the Department of Justice is reviewing 2,153,000 passport applications in the United States; the Canadian government has to review 200,000; 53,000 fingerprints have been checked. He never imagined all of this would happen over the death of a black man; it baffled him until the end of his life.”

This was a manhunt on an epic, international scale, but Like a Fading Shadow focuses in on Ray and the time he spent in Lisbon, drifting around the city streets, biding his time in bars and cafes, hiding out in his hotel room, always looking over his shoulder, never making eye contact with anyone or speaking to the same person twice.

This is only half of the novel though, it’s constituted by two very different and separate strands, Ray’s story is interspersed with Muñoz Molina’s own recollections of a trip he took to the Portuguese city in 1987 - two decades after Ray - when he was researching his prize-winning novel Winter in Lisbon.

For the majority of the book, the chapters alternate between the two, a strange combination of true crime and literary memoir; yet wound together like this the end result takes on the fictional quality that just about justifies describing the work as a novel.

That said, when it comes to Ray’s case, Muñoz Molina clearly owes a debt to the historians and biographers who’ve addressed the subject before him, and he’s also drawn heavily on the FBI files on the case, which were only recently declassified, hence the degree of specificity involved, each and every detail - what newspapers Ray bought, what was found in his pockets, what he ate and where - has been painstakingly researched, digested, and then recreated here with the forensic detail of a crime scene reconstruction.

Indeed, sometimes it feels as if one’s reading a police report, especially since Muñoz Molina has no apparent ambition to try to get inside the killer’s mind, instead he moves him around like a pawn on a chessboard. Given the infamy of Ray’s crime, the obvious comparison to make is with Don DeLillo’s novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra, and I imagine the two will henceforth be often spoken of together. But Muñoz Molina’s insertion of himself into the narrative complicates matters.

Although not a fugitive fleeing the law, the young writer arrives in Lisbon in the late ‘80s attempting to escape something: “Beneath the calm surface of my daily routine was a juxtaposition of fragmented lives without rhyme or reason, unfulfilled desires, scattered pieces that did not fit together. Much of what I did felt alien to me. Who I really was and what I really cared about remained hidden from most of those around me.” He has his own secrets, and is living something of a double life. By day he’s a dutiful young husband and father, working a steady bureaucrat job in Granada’s City Hall, but he’s out in bars drinking till the small hours—“It was the eighties and it felt like something amazing and definitive could happen any night”—and trying to write a novel.

At this point still an apprentice, he’s got much to learn. “I did not know how to create fiction from the world I saw around me,” he confesses, “or invent characters with lives similar to mine.”

This, obviously, has long since changed; the question one feels compelled to ask about Like a Fading Shadow is whether it’s actually a novel at all? Is Muñoz Molina too invested in the world around him? Where’s the fictionalisation?

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy reading it, and it undoubtedly speaks to Camilo A. Ramirez’s seamless translation that I remained so engrossed throughout - and I say that as one who has neither a specific interest in Ray’s case, nor in reading the memoirs of this particular young writer, for, if I’m being completely honest, there’s little of great originality here.

Muñoz Molina’s attempts to draw parallels between the writer and the criminal, and to see the novel itself as a place of refuge and confession, although not without their allure, ultimately left me a little skeptical.