Javier Marias: Your Face Tomorrow (Fever and Spear, Dance and Dream, Poison, Shadow and Farewell), transl. Margaret Jull Costa, Vintage Books.
I spent most of November reading Solenoid, which I then somewhat laughingly called my December Diva, but I have also spent the past three months reading Javier Marias’ trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, roughly one volume per month, and even before finishing the last volume, I had decided this was going to make my ‘best of the year’ list. Yet it was tough getting going with it.
I had attempted the first volume once before, about a year or two ago, and abandoned it. After the death of Marias, I decided to give it another go, especially since Jacqui warned in her review that it started slowly. I believe the only way to enjoy Marias’ notoriously long sentences and repetitions is to submerge yourself in the text like plunging into the sea, allow the waves of his thoughts and prose to wash over you. But you have to be in the mood for this. Luckily, this time round I was, and volumes 2 and 3 got better and better, as you can see from the number of little post-its I used.
The first-person narrator is Jacques Deza, who is separated from his wife and children, living in England while they are back in his native Madrid. The rather shady Bertram Tupra approaches him and convinces him to work for a mysterious organisation, since he appears to have a particular talent for examining people’s faces and behaviours, understanding an individual’s true nature and predicting what they might be capable of in the future. That is basically the entire story arc of the trilogy, but there are numerous incidents and complications along the way, Jacques starts to question just what is required of him and why, but gradually succumbs to the ideology of ‘pre-emptive strike’, and ends up applying it in his personal life, with all that it entails: surveillance, lies, manipulation, aggression and torture.
The build-up is so gradual, each incident is described in such detail (not forgetting the endless divagations and spirally returns to a scene – each time with an additional piece of information), that when we get those moments when the underlying menace suddenly burst out as real violence, for example when Tupra threatens to cut someone’s head off with a sword, it is profoundly shocking. The hypnotic long sentences, the descriptions of paintings, James Bond books and Hollywood stars, the references to the Spanish Civil War all lull us into a false sense of security: this is a civilised world, a world of Oxford academics and cocktail parties and absurd, conceited little diplomats. Yet all that multilingual politeness is but a thin veneer, and there is an abyss of vindictive or, even worse, indifferent cruelty just below that.
We discover all this at the same pace as Jacques, a slow pace, since he tends to overthink every little gesture, word or happening. How reliable a narrator is he really? Does it matter? The author sets out his stall quite quite early on:
A very thin line separates facts from imaginings, even desires from their fulfilment, and the fictitious from what actually happened, because imaginings are already facts, and desires are their own fulfilment, and the fictitious does happen, although not in the eyes of commons sense and of the law… But consciousness knows nothing of the law and common sense neither interests nor concerns it, each consciousness has its own sense, and that very thin line is, in my experience, often blurred and, once it has disappeared, separates nothing, which is why I have learned to fear anything that passes through the mind and even what the mind does not as yet know…’
It’s this intimate understanding of even the most tentative and secret impulses of human nature which fascinate me so much about Javier Marias. Just like Cărtărescu does in Solenoid, Marias cannot resist chasing down rabbit holes, bringing in so many apparently tangential topics, ruminating or speculating about human nature so broadly, that we wonder what on earth will finally get the story to move on. Yet, although we can hardly call this propulsive forward motion, I have the feeling that each parenthesis does have its purpose and evidences something deeper about the characters and situations.
Or perhaps I simply do not care how much he deviates from the main subject, as long as he can come up with perfectly-formed aphorisms such as these (almost Cioran-like):
There is nothing worse than looking for meaning or believeing there is one. Or if there is one… believing that the meaning of something… could depend on us and on our actions, on our intention or our function…
There are, as you know, always reasons a posteriori for any action, even for the most gratutious and most unspeakable actions, reasons can always be found, ridiculous, improbable and ill-founded sometimes and which deceive no on or only the person who invents them. But you can always find a reason.
In another language you cannot help but feel that you are always acting or even translating (however well you know the language), as if the words you pronounce and hear belonged to some absent person…
It’s always safer to betray an individual… than some vague, abstract idea that anyone can claim to represent… that’s the bad thing about ideas, their self-declared representatives keep crawling out of the woodwork, and anyone can take up an idea to suit their needs or interests and proclaim that they’ll defend it by whatever means necessary, bayonet or betrayal, persecution or tank…
This is the kind of profoundly unsettling work that leaves you with more questions than answers, where whole paragraphs or concepts will burrow themselves under your skin, and you will want to go back and read in smaller gulps again and again. Marias is an author who is not afraid to tackle big subjects, who manages to effortlessly weave cultural specificity (and occasionally mischievous observations about other cultures) with universal fears about baser human instincts. I
It’s dreadful to have ideas put in your head, however unlikely or ridiculous and however unsustainable and improbable…any scrap of information registered by the brain stays there until it achieves oblivion… and however much you clean and scrub and erase, that rim is the kind that will never come out; it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing, and to repudiate the facts…
This describes what Marias does to me, but I will always prefer to know and to explore, which is possibly why I find him quite addictive. If some of our Book Club members said that there were whole passages of Tomb of Sand where they felt they did not understand what was going on, and could not follow the flow of the sentences, and if I occasionally considered Solenoid too meandering and self-indulgent, I was never bored with this trilogy, especially in volumes 2 and 3. I almost wanted more of it (and luckily have a few more books by Marias on my shelves).
Of course, this is in no small part thanks to Margaret Jull Costa’s impeccable translation: she seems to understand Marias better than anyone else (although she has admitted that he was not always easy to work with) and has managed to capture that Latin flow in the sentences, while remaining clear and precise in English.