The last (and first) book I read by Javier Marías, Voyage Along the Horizon*, ended by with a statement that the novel-in-the-novel never should have been published or even read by anyone, much less me. The first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, Fever and Spear, begins with a not dissimilar warning:
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.
We’ve moved from “you shouldn’t have read this” to “I shouldn’t be telling you this.” But he just can’t stop himself!
The narrator, Jaime (or Jacques, or Jacobo, or Diego, or Iago…) Deza, begins thus a rush of thought about the grave danger of telling people things, of what people can do with their knowledge of you, and how above all we all wish we could simply be silent, but we never can, not even after death, we can never escape all this endless, dangerous talking. Deza could rival The Good Soldier‘s narrator Dowell in at least two ways: his propensity to half-take-back nearly everything he says just after he’s said it, and the meandering way he has of telling his story in all the “wrong” order, all the while maintaining great narrative tension. Did I mention this is a spy novel—and a genuine page-turner?
It’s not, to be sure, a proper spy novel, though I’ve only read one of those (Casino Royale) so I guess I can’t be sure. But Deza isn’t a proper spy either. Deza, a lecturer/translator from Madrid, is back in Britain after an absence of many years. He’s separated from his wife and working for the BBC, and when his old Oxford friend and colleague Sir Peter Wheeler invites him to a party and makes it clear he wants Deza to meet someone, he knows something is up. That someone is Bertram Tupra, a man with a mysterious job who will recruit Deza to the same “group” after Wheeler has given him a day-long history of World War II domestic propaganda and certain intelligence practices he helped develop.
Deza’s value to Tupra and his group is in his ability to read people, something most don’t even attempt to do. Wheeler complains that “no one wants to see anything of what there is to see, they don’t even dare to look, still less take the risk of making a wager; being forewarned, foreseeing, judging, or, heaven forbid, prejudging, that’s a capital offence.” This is exactly what Deza must do, and it’s a strange practice. You would say he goes on instinct, describing himself as going on talking beyond what he actuallys feels he knows, allowing himself to be carried along, semi-unconsciously, on an intuitive and very intensive judgment and description of character.
When I wrote about Lord Jim, I was surprised to see Amateur Reader compare it to this in the comments, but the two novels turn out to share a lot. Both are concerned with our ability to know other people, and how their knowledge of us can be used to hurt us. Describing the difficulty of their line of work, Wheeler notes that “yet something nearly always does emerge,” recalling Marlowe and his pursuit of Jim:
Rarely do you meet a person about whom you remain forever in the dark, rarely—by dint of sheer persistence on our part—does a figure fail to emerge, however blurred or tenuous, and however different from what you were expecting, remote, defined, or out of keeping with those few initial lines, even incongruous. …you begin, after unflagging scrutiny…to make something out, the gloom lifts and you grasp something, discern something….
And, like in Lord Jim, sometimes when you examine yourself, there’s no denying you don’t like what you see. An old friend of Deza’s from Spain recounts an incident when a diabetic woman fainted during a drug deal with him. Not knowing about her illness, and afraid, he ran out of the apartment, leaving her lying on the floor.
Nothing happened, and the girl doesn’t bear me any ill will, nor does Cuesta [her boyfriend, the drug dealer]. He doesn’t even feel the tiniest bit suspicious or disappointed, which would have been a touch awkward just now. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’ve found out precisely what I’m like. I mean I knew already, but now I’ve actually experienced it, in the flesh, so to speak, and although both the girl and Cuesta will soon have forgotten the whole episode, I’ll never forget it, because, the way I see it, a girl died right in front of my eyes and lay there for several minutes, and I simply took off with my load of drugs safely stowed away and did absolutely nothing to help her.
There is all this and still more for me to love about this book, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, so I must really thank Richard for organizing a group read of the whole Your Face Tomorrow trilogy this summer, one each month. The voice, the pace, the structure, the themes, the characters—all good. And I don’t expect the next two volumes to be worse.
*Full disclosure: I could not come up with the title without looking it up, and instead kept thinking Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which, to my slight credit, I did know for certain was wrong. Additionally, I can’t believe how negative the linked post is—I have very good memories of this book!