After a couple of years of misguided neglect on my part, 2015 saw Javier Marías reappear on the blog with a couple of novels. Earlier this year, I reviewed All Souls and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, but good as they were, they were always stepping-stones towards an eventual goal. And now, finally, it’s time to set off on that literary journey – the trilogy awaits…
Your Face Tomorrow (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is a trilogy of works by Marías featuring Jacques Deza, the protagonist of All Souls. You don’t need to have read that book to begin the trilogy, but I suspect that with all the allusions to old friends it is a good idea. In Part One of the series (Fever and Spear), Deza is back in England, a little older and now separated from his wife. Having taught at Oxford during his previous stay in England, he’s not short of connections, and the story begins when his old friend, Sir Peter Wheeler, invites him to dinner – where he is introduced to Bertram Tupra.
Deza suspects there’s something behind this contrived meeting, and so it proves. Just like Wheeler before him, Tupra is involved in some rather special and secret business, and the two men have recognised Deza’s unique quality, his uncanny ability to read people:
But in reality or, rather, in practice, I was of interest to him and was taken on as an interpreter of lives, to use his own grandiose expression and exaggerated expectations.
p.18 (Chatto & Windus, 2005)
Thus begins a new career in a rather sensitive area, a job where unveiling the secrets written on faces is an everyday task.
Most Marías admirers of my acquaintance claim the trilogy is his masterpiece, and this first volume is certainly an impressive set up. While there are thriller elements to the work, it’s less a spy story than an examination of people. The writer, through his urbane narrator, explores how every move we make, everything we say, reveals far more about us than we would care to admit.
Deza is a man with the talent of seeing what most cannot, and the contrast between those who see and the rest of us poor mortals is shown early in the piece in his own family story. During the Spanish Civil War, Deza’s father is brutally betrayed, something which still shocks the son:
How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us? How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breathe their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience that they would have had to contain for who knows how many years? (p.155)
Deza finds it unfathomable that his father was unable to see that he would be betrayed by his friend, continuing:
How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?
Perhaps it is this experience which has made Deza into what he is, a man who never misses the slightest gesture which might reveal the true motive beneath a smiling countenance.
As well as the idea of our actions revealing our true self, the novel discusses the way most people are unable to perceive the truth – or refuse to believe it when they do see it. Deza (or Marías) muses on how people struggle to believe something which doesn’t fit into their narrative; as time passes, we are betrayed by our tendency to bend the facts, what we saw, to fit in with what we want to believe. The two ideas form an uneasy counterbalance, and it is only people like Deza who can use this knowledge to see beneath the surface and predict how those he meets are likely to act in the future.
Fever and Spear, like many Marías works, holds a plethora of secrets which will undoubtedly be revealed in due course, but one of the themes I noticed is a fascination with names, and the way they change to suit our mood. Jacques himself, a veritable chameleon, has several alternatives (Jaime, Jack, Jacobo, Iago), each used by a different person with their own view of our Spanish friend. Both Wheeler and Tupra have changed their names (false Englishmen, the pair of them), an act which echoes the aliases of those foreigners involved in the Spanish Civil War. This trend even trickles down to the minor characters – one of Deza’s former colleagues is an Irish academic, writing horror fiction under the unlikely pseudonym of Goliath Cherubim…
Plot, you say? Well, there is one, of course, but it never interferes with our enjoyment of a lengthy sentence or twelve. In Marías’ world, the writing always takes priority, and in the trilogy he is giving himself a broader canvas and the scope he craves to move slowly – and (believe me) he does. In the first part of the book, one conversation after a party takes up thirty pages, and just as we expect to be moving upstairs for a well-deserved rest, Deza decides instead to retire to the study to spend a further thirty pages or so doing some research (Marías is certainly not a writer to be hurried). The pace does take its toll after a while, and if I’m being honest, towards the end I was starting to feel the need for something to happen – luckily, then, there is a little twist to keep the reader interested and have them searching for the second volume.
As always, reading Marías is a pleasure, with acres of beautiful prose (take a bow, once more, MJC). There’s always the nagging feeling, though, that we’re never quite sure how exactly to read it. Every word, every syllable, could contain the key to the story – but there are so many of them… Take this, for example:
Not to mention the infinite number of things that fall within the eye’s blind spot, every life is full of episodes that are literally invisible, we don’t know what happened because we didn’t see it, couldn’t see it, much of what affects us and determines us is concealed or, how can I put it, not available for viewing, kept out of sight, out of shot. (p.97)
Is it merely an attractive sentence, or a vital passage hinting at something key to later developments? I’m sure I’ll find out eventually 😉
This first installment raises far more questions than answers. There’s constant repetition of the fever and spear theme, another Shakespearean allusion, no doubt, but one I’ll leave for now. Large parts of the story are also spent discussing his new job, yet we’re never told exactly what he’s doing, or who he’s working for. Then, of course, there’s the lengthy discussion about his father’s history, which could be a red herring, simple background information or a vital connection to what is to come…
To be honest, I have no idea how it will all continue, but no matter; what is important is that I’m keen to find out. I already have Part Two (Dance and Dream) waiting for me on the shelves, but it’s a book I might put aside until the holidays finally arrive. You see, Marías is a writer best enjoyed in peace – and, of course, at length.
I’m looking forward to it already 🙂