Dark Back of Time is much more than a statement for the defence: it is a bravura enactment of the spirals and vicissitudes of intellectual curiosity, especially the sections relating to a passage in All Souls many people assumed to be invented but was actually the most true: the life of John Gawsworth, a pseudonym for Terence Ian Fytton Armstrong, poet and literary man-about-town in the first part of the 20th century, who was also King Juan I, third king of Redonda. Redonda is a real, barren island in the Caribbean which belongs, legally, to Antigua, but has been an imaginary kingdom since the father of fantasy writer MP Shiel claimed it in 1865. From him the kingship passed to Gawsworth - who claimed it enthusiastically, conferring titles on, for example, Barry Humphries, Joan Crawford, Lawrence Durrell and Diana Dors. Gawsworth bequeathed it to writer Jon Wynne-Tyson (who ennobled, among others, Alan Coren and Libby Purves). Wynne-Tyson, as Marías tells it, abdicated in favour of Marías because, in All Souls, he had written about Gawsworth so sympathetically.(Via The Literary Saloon)
"I thought I shouldn't term myself a real novelist if I don't accept this," says Marías, who considers Redonda "a realm inherited through irony and writing", even though "at heart I'm a republican and islands make me nervous". He has taken it seriously, becoming literary executor for Shiel and Gawsworth and establishing his own press, Reino de Redonda, to publish them, as well as some of his own translations, and any books he feels need rescue, such as Richmal Crompton's fiction for adults.
And he has conferred his own titles - on Pedro Almodóvar (Duke of Trémula), William Boyd (Duke of Brazzaville), AS Byatt (Duchess of Morpho Eugenia), and Francis Ford Coppola (Duke of Megalópolis), for example - and established his own literary prize. The dukes each suggest three nominees (Almodóvar is particularly conscientious), and the winner - so far there have been four, JM Coetzee ("before he got the Nobel"), John H Elliott, Claudio Magris and Eric Rohmer - gets €6,000, and a dukedom.
Marías also writes a monthly column for The Believer, "La Zona Fantasma." This month he contemplates "anachronistic attraction":
Not long ago a friend and I went to the Prado to see the exhibit entitled “The Spanish Portrait.” As we walked through the show she turned to me at one point and asked, “Have you ever looked at a painting and felt intensely attracted to the subject for some reason? And then remembered that you will never meet the person, who has been dead for centuries. And yet, the person is still there, and you still feel attracted. What do you do when that happens?”