As regular readers will know, a major part of my reading over the past couple of months has been devoted to Javier Marías and his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. The first part was a slow, measured build up, with the intriguing (and occasionally violent) middle section ramping up the tension. So, with the third part bringing the 1400-page epic to a close, does Marías manage to finish off the story in style? What do you think? 😉
Warning – if you don’t want to find out about what happened in the first two books, stop reading now 🙂
Poison, Shadow and Farewell (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, published by Chatto & Windus) begins with our Spanish friend Jacques Deza being driven to the house of his boss, the enigmatic Bertram Tupra. The two arrive in darkness, proceeding to continue their conversation over drinks… and then, abruptly, we are taken back to Jacques’ flat (to the point at which we left it at the end of Part 1!). Taking up Deza’s interrupted conversation with Pérez Nuix, we learn of the story behind her request, and a whole lot more besides.
By the time we return to Tupra’s house, where the two men settle down to watch a rather disturbing DVD, the direction of the rest of the book is gradually becoming clearer, and Jacques’ eventual return to Spain feels like a culmination of the events depicted so far. After pages of musings on the theory of violence, and then a rather unexpected practical demonstration, the time has come for the apprentice to put what he has learned into practice – if he can bring himself to do it. For the question that pervades the book comes into focus during this visit to Madrid, with Deza having to decide whether, if we are provoked enough, the end always justifies the means…
Poison, Shadow and Farewell is an excellent way to end the series, a dismount with a double-tuck and triple-pike effortlessly nailed. At around 550 pages, it’s far longer than the first two parts, but gripping from start to finish, providing ample pay-off for all the hard work the reader and writer have put in. Marías (with the help of Tupra) slowly undermines our beliefs, making us question our certainty as to the way the world works, guiding us towards the eventual showdown.
The overriding theme of the book is violence, and after the scene in the nightclub toilets, Deza’s horror is scarcely contained. He condemns Tupra’s actions, spluttering that you can’t just go around beating people up, but his boss has a surprise in store. After showing Deza the DVD, one full of the horrendous depths of human nature, Tupra turns the Spaniard’s disgust back on to him:
“You’ve had plenty of time to think about it, so answer the question I asked you in the car. Now that you’ve seen things you’d never seen before and, I hope, never will again. Tell me now, why, according to you, one can’t go around beating people up and killing them? You’ve seen how much of it goes on, everywhere, and sometimes with an utter lack of concern. So explain to me why one can’t.”
p.166 (Chatto & Windus, 2009)
As hard as Deza tries, a convincing answer remains elusive. Perhaps the truth is that there is nothing to stop us maiming and killing at will after all…
This revelation marks a turning point in Deza’s life, and it’s time for him to decide whether this new life is, as he claims, just a ‘parenthesis’ or his true calling. This will be decided on his return to Madrid when many of the earlier ideas are finally drawn together (his dreams, his memories of Luisa, even his neighbour) in the form of a potential danger to his estranged wife:
That was something I had learned from Tupra, at least in theory: Luisa was clearly in danger, and now I understood that sometimes one has no option but to do what has to be done and at once, without waiting or hesitating or delaying… (p.276)
The scene is set, the players in place – now is the time to act, swiftly and mercilessly, no lingering, no delay.
There are few works I’ve read which are as skilfully constructed as Your Face Tomorrow, a book with scarcely a word in the wrong place. Every passing mention, every little idea is woven into the fabric of the novel, all serving a greater purpose, with minor details recurring, gently jogging our memory. As suspected, even the drop of blood mentioned in the first part has a much deeper significance than we could have imagined (on many levels), not least because, as you might have suspected by now, yes, there will be blood – and lots of it.
Blood is not something most readers will be comfortable with, and Marías discusses this in the comparisons of war and peace. As Deza learns, it’s almost impossible to understand what is acceptable in one situation from the standpoint of the other. The teachers here are the two old men of the novel, and while Jacques’ father draws on the Spanish Civil War, retired spy Peter Wheeler finally lets Deza in on some of the secrets he’s been keeping regarding his actions during World War Two:
“Don’t forget, Jacobo, the Second World War felt like a battle for survival. And it was, it really was. And in wars like that the limits on what one can acceptably do are constantly broadening out, almost without one realising it. Times of peace judge times of war very harshly, and I’m not sure how far it’s possible to make such a judgement…” (p.480)
Again, we are confronted with the dilemma of the ends justifying the means, one we are only too familiar with in our modern era. Not sure about that? Ever heard of waterboarding, rendition?
As you will have gathered from my series of posts, I loved reading this book, a magnificent novel which builds on the writer’s previous work and extends it. There are more Shakespearean echoes, naturally, with several themes repeated from Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and a plethora of playful nods back to All Souls. What’s even better, though, is what happens when Deza returns to Madrid, as we unexpectedly stumble across several links to another of his earlier novels, A Heart So White (be still my beating heart!). I was tempted to race out to the library immediately and get a copy so that I could refresh my memory as to what Ranz and Custardoy got up to first time around.
This is a book, a whole trilogy in fact, that I feel sad to be returning to the library, and I definitely want my own set one day (in preparation for the inevitable reread). The copy I borrowed has a sticker on the spine, a picture of a pistol, because it’s a ‘spy novel’, you see, but in truth it’s something much more than that, an examination of the nature of violence, the horrors of war and of knowing our limits and those of others. I highly recommend you make time in your schedule to lose yourself in it – if not today, then perhaps tomorrow…