Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow

Your-face-tomorrow-vol-1 by Ahmad Saidullah

Javier Marías. Your Face Tomorrow. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. London: Serpent’s Tail. Vol. I: Fever and Spear. 2005. 387 pp. Vol. II: Dance and Dream. 2006. 341 pp. Vol. III: Poison, Shadow and Farewell. 2009. 546 pp.

Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow, a novel in three parts rather than a trilogy, according to its creator, reads like Henry James with the hiccups. Phrases are repeated in Edwardian cadences and counterposed as in fugues, sentences run on for several pages, and actions are cut out of time, their meanings opened to conjecture. Although Face has been compared to Remembrance of Things Past, it is not so much a roman-fleuve of mémoire involuntaire reaching into the recesses of time as an active speculation on ethics and history, less Erlebnis, more Erfahrung, to use Walter Benjamin’s distinctions between the immediate lived experience of an event and the fund of community memory one can draw upon to understand it.

The lessons from history are viewed from different angles. Marías is taken with secrecy, trust, truth, with limning the “face” one shows in making choices in life, and with betrayals that wear the mask of friendship. He remembers those whose fates rested on their friends, neighbours, enemies and state authorities during the Spanish civil war and World War II, including George Orwell, Andreu Nin i Pérez, the Catalan POUMiste leader said to have been flayed to death by the Nationalists in Spain, and Marías’ own relatives and acquaintances. He reproduces photographs, posters and documents in evidence to blend the personal and historical with fiction like WG Sebald who called him a “twin writer.”

Like most of Marías’ titles, this comes from Shakespeare — a modern gloss on “what a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name, or to know thy face tomorrow,” words Hal uses to renounce his fellow carouser Poins. Marías borrows the contrasting lives of his father Julían, a philosopher and student of Ortega y Gasset, who appears as the narrator’s father Juan Deza, and Sir Peter Russell who is called Sir Peter Wheeler in the book. Betrayed by a close friend to Francoist authorities and accused of writing for Pravda and consorting with the Red Dean of Canterbury Hewlett Johnson, Julían Marías spent years in exile but chose to face life without rancour. The Russell-Wheeler character, an unmarried modern-language don at Oxford, wartime intelligence officer and Julían Marías’ friend, once saved an enemy agent from certain death. He is scarred, however, in the book by the memory of his “wife” who had killed herself when she found out she had unwittingly betrayed a friend’s husband’s Jewish origins to the fascists.

Marías' novels since he taught Spanish literature and translation at Oxford in the 1980s have featured a male narrator, usually an interpreter or translator, a decoder of secrets. Once a translator at Oxford, Jaime Deza, the narrator of Face who works for the BBC, is, on Sir Peter Wheeler’s recommendation, to become along with his colleagues “interpreters of people or translators of lives.” He is recruited into a shadowy MI6 outfit led by Bertram Tupra who has a penchant for fine shoes and violence. Deza (pronounced “Deatha” and also known as Jacques, Jacobo, James, and Jaime) has “the rare gift of being able to see in people what not even they were capable of seeing in themselves.” As all spies’ minds are, Deza’s is an étui crammed with fears, suspicions, surmises, his “fever and pain” about the power of words and gestures. The book opens with the threats implicit in the telling of stories which can take on lives of their own:

One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion. Telling is almost always done as a gift, even when the story contains and injects some poison, it is also a bond, a granting of trust, and rare is the trust or confidence that is not sooner or later betrayed.

At first, he enjoys the speculation about people’s lives, motives and histories and finds the setting suited to this work:

Oxford where he had studied and which brings with it so many affectations and turns of phrase and so many exclusive and distinctive attitudes — almost like passwords and codes — a large degree of arrogance and even a few facial tics amongst those who have become most thoroughly assimilated into the place.

An aficionado of the last world war like Marías, Deza muses on patria (homeland), wartime propaganda, secret agents, campaign posters against careless talk, violence, truth and lies. Of Tupra, he observes, “he always spoke to me not in half-truths exactly, but at most in three-quarters truth, never in whole truths.” Deza’s break with Tupra’s group happens over Dick Dearlove, a celebrity with a murky past. To guard his reputation, Dearlove commits an act of criminal desperation, probably goaded by stories circulated by Tupra. Deza’s experiences teach him that

the State needs treachery, venality, deceit, crime, illegal acts, conspiracy, dirty tricks (on the other hand, it needs very few acts of heroism, or only now and then, to provide a contrast.)

Marías who honed his craft by imitating and translating English novels uses parallels and echoes deliberately. Face can be clustered with Marías’ A Heart So White, All Souls, and its sequel, the “false novel” Dark Back of Time. Characters or their analogues, setpieces and themes from the other books in this cluster reappear in Face. There are familiar tableaux and characterizations: the Machen-like horror at encountering a dog without a leg, and women as innocent objects of seduction and targets of male violence. (Marías claims to be distant from his female creations. Clare Bayes in All Souls is his only strongly realized female character.) Deza’s estranged wife, the ideal woman, is again named Luisa. And, of course, there are the unusual names Tupra and Vanni Incompra.

There is humour, some of it scholarly, most of it verging on farce. All Souls had a hilarious account of the narrator explaining papirotazo, the Spanish term for a flicking blow. Readers of Face will not understand why Deza and Tupra visit Laurence Sterne’s curacy in Coxwold in Yorkshire unless they know that Sterne is Marías’ favourite writer. Among the many Sternean digressions in Face and there are several where the action is interrupted, forgotten and displaced by the flow of Deza’s conjectural imagination, one delves into the meaning of Middle English ge-bryd-guma (related to Modern English bridegroom) which Deza takes to be the ties between two or more men who have “lain or slept with the same woman, even if this had happened at different times and with the different faces worn by that woman in her lifetime, her face of yesterday or today or tomorrow.”

The high-table dinner in All Souls, an homage perhaps to Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blues, has an equivalent in Face in the farcical description of Rafael de la Garza, a Spanish diplomat. However, details of his “urban” dress complete with snood, his loud, vulgar comments, hiphop gestures and gauche behaviour with women at parties are not as funny as they might seem in Oxbridge. Catholic conservative elements in Spain refer to Marías as “the damned anglo-saxon” and “angloaburrido” (anglo-bore) for his quiet manners, unSpanish demeanour and obsession with England.

In Dance and Dream, Deza is asked to lure this diplomat into the “handicapped” bathroom of a disco where Tupra nearly decapitates him with a landsknecht sword, breaks his ribs, and comes close to drowning him in the toilet bowl. In Poison, Shadow and Farewell, Deza now back in Madrid seeks his final instruction from Tupra. He delivers a similar warning, this time with a poker, to Custardoy the Younger (an artist, forger and violent whoremonger first encountered in A Heart So White) who beats Luisa during their lovemaking.

Marías is often touted as a candidate for the Nobel but that prize generally favours, even in this age of mass displacements of people all over the world, writers attached to their terroir. However transplanted, Face is not like the conventional novels that we are used to reading in North America, works that give primacy to the solipsism of the voice over everything else. By contrast, Face’s meditative and diegetic worldview bears the imprimatur of the liberal humanism of Ortega y Gasset who taught the novelist’s father. His philosophy had at its heart an engagement with the world and history. Ortega believed that that people have “no nature but history” and that life is a dramatic struggle between fate and freedom in which everyone is implicated. He insisted on the togetherness and tensions between the ego and the world (or oppressive circumstance) it struggles against which in his opinion describe the limits of human becoming.

Marías’ writing creed “I progress as I digress” underlines the importance of literary speculation in understanding the world around us. The urgency that drives Marías’ large novel in the absence of dramatic incidents flows from these often poignant meditations on history and ethics. They can be summed up in the words of another anglophone Spaniard George Santayana who said “those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.”

These are far-from-easy lessons told as they are in Face with its ebbs and flows, its eloquence, baroque mannerisms, sly humour, elegance, misdirection, interruptions and dollops of tedium and self-indulgence but they are often worth listening to for precisely those reasons.

Ahmad Saidullah is a prizewinning Canadian writer. His book Happiness and Other Disorders: Short Stories was published in Canada and India in 2008 and was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and longlisted for the Crossword Vodafone Book Award in 2009. The book is being translated into French by the University of Ottawa Press. He lives in Toronto, Canada.