James Earl Ray on the run in Lisbon

  • Jeff Calder
  • For Cox Newspapers
6:19 p.m Friday, July 14, 2017 Arts & Culture
“Like A Fading Shadow” by Antonio Muñoz Molina.

“Like a Fading Shadow” is Antonio Muñoz Molina’s dramatization of the hunted assassin James Earl Ray’s obscure 10-day sojourn in Lisbon. The Portuguese port is “one of those places,” Molina says, “where the possibility of imminence acts like a magnetic field.” The novel is equally a mea culpa by one of Spain’s towering modern writers, a memoir of his artistic development that discloses the personal cost to himself and his family of his youthful literary obsession.

Separated by decades (Ray is there in 1968; Molina first visits Lisbon in 1987), they are an unlikely pair. Ray is a career criminal, a shape-shifter without conscience; Molina must come to terms with the inertia of his regret over the collapse of his marriage. “Remorse,” he writes, “has an extraordinary resistance to the passage of time.”

Ray blasts country music on his automobile radio; he devours James Bond novels; he hates blacks and Jews because his daddy told him so. The bookish Molina is struggling to free himself from the emulation of his more lettered masters; he’s also a jazz hound running from family life back in Granada and the government job he describes as “soft tyranny.”

Molina recounts Ray’s astonishing 14-month run of luck beginning with his Houdini-style escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967. He crisscrosses the country in his Mustang, stopping in Los Angeles, where he becomes a half-assed foot soldier for George Wallace’s third-party presidential run.

The little Alabaman’s crusade is surrounded by a thunderhead of white supremacist fringe groups, a milieu in which Ray feels right at home, having expressed his admiration for Hitler while stationed in Germany at the end of World War II.

With plastic surgery and horned-rim glasses, alligator shoes and an expensive tailor-made suit, Ray transforms himself from a near-cinematic hick into a “well groomed,” slightly professorial, swinger of the era. He studies hypnosis and “psycho-cybernetics,” hoping to control the thoughts of others with his powerful brain waves — and why shouldn’t he, when “secret government laboratories [are] researching techniques to become invisible”?

He’s increasingly deranged on the subject of King.

He begins stalking the civil rights leader around the South, even establishing a bolt-hole in a rooming house near Atlanta’s Peachtree hippie “Strip,” to better track King’s movements. After the Memphis shot, he flees back to Georgia, buses and trains to Toronto; then, via London, flies to Portugal.

Ray requires Lisbon as a portal to the Angolan war, where he expects to be welcomed as a hero by white mercenaries. Twenty years later, Molina needs Lisbon to “find the drama” to complete his torrid jazz mystery, “Winter in Lisbon,” which, in fact, will become his breakthrough novel, later adapted for a 1991 film featuring Dizzy Gillespie, who will write the score.

Though fictionalized, “Like a Fading Shadow” is an in-depth rendering of Ray’s weird trans-Atlantic odyssey. Molina suggests that Ray, running short of cash, may have become disoriented by Lisbon’s atmospheric fusion of Medieval Europe and Africa; his plan unravels, and he returns to London, where he’s run to ground.

“Like a Fading Shadow” does not shy away from parallels between author and killer, to the extent that Molina uses Ray to understand his younger self. They have shared the city’s “lunar glow” and negotiated identical sidewalks made of “small polished stones, white and smooth like bone.”

Ray went to Lisbon to vanish, but Molina travels there to locate himself, as a writer and a person; of this, he does not seem to have had a complete understanding: “I knew nothing about life or desire or the passage of time the first time I was here.” He makes copious notes and takes photographs, and studies them back home in Granada, where the real Lisbon rematerializes for him as an “abstract city, a [scale] model made to the dimension of the plot unfolding within it…”

There’s a disproportion — an exaggeration of magnitude — between Ray and Molina’s divergent life stories and psychologies, but “Like a Fading Shadow,” the decorated author’s seventh novel, holds together as a political history and extraordinary confession by the force of its purpose: little philosophical manifestos are strewn here and there, explaining his ideas about creative fiction and how they’ve changed in Molina’s maturity. These ideas, inseparable from the alternating currents of the organic world, are entangled with the way he would like to govern his everyday life.

“Like a Fading Shadow” climaxes with a daring intrusion into Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s thoughts on the occasion of his “Mountaintop” oration in support of the Memphis sanitation workers strike. It’s the evening before the end, and Molina’s King is full of remorse — read this as the author’s projection, if you like. King is exhausted and afraid but resigned to his death. He rejects the role of savior. He complains about his theatrical routine, then, suddenly, falls into a trance, improvising freely in his cerebrations, yet always returning to his theme of common cause, which was the basis of the Poor People’s Campaign. Indeed, in the speech itself — outside of the book’s recreation — the great leader seems to lose himself in symphonic global moments, at one point ruminating on nuclear devastation. Humanity’s choice, he believes, is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but “nonviolence and nonexistence.”

Antonio Muñoz Molina would like his writing to harness the same liberty as King’s moment inside the magnetic field, to emulate “the restlessness of jazz,” like the free movement of John Coltrane’s music hurtling into the OM. But before Molina’s spell in Lisbon, fiction writing to him meant manufacturing symmetry inside a “cellophane of illusory beauty.” Later in his career, he determines that “the flow of ordinary life weaves and unravels its arguments, its symmetries, its resonances, without anyone having to invent anything, just as the waves of the river draw themselves … without the intervention of a hand or a higher intelligence.”

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