“Politeness is a poison, it’s our undoing.”

Amateur Reader’s first question about Your Face Tomorrow, on completing Poison, Shadow, and Farewell, is what on earth it’s supposed to be. That is, “how is the narrator, Deza, narrating, and who is his audience?” It’s a problem: Deza narrates the story with constant digressions and, more problematically, an overwhelming amount of long dialogue that he could not possibly remember or retell. Other characters’ speeches go on for pages at a time. And, it turns out, his own inner speeches do too.

Along with the digressions and the windings of narrator-Deza’s stream of consciousness, there are also the digressions and windings of whatever Deza’s stream of consciousness (allegedly) was at the time of whatever event he is now narrating. As AR said, “I would often miss [the self-quotations] until I got to the end of a long paragraph where I would discover the close-quotes.” Tell me about it. But when I noticed them I felt sure they meant something.

A few things, actually, I now think. First of all, digression and picking up the thread of an argument or conversation is a motif throughout the novel (and by “novel” I mean “trilogy,” which seems ridiculous to keep saying when I do think of this as a single novel). Deza is constantly dropping and picking back up again the thread of the main outer narrative—and really, he’s never dropping it, he’s just picking more up and tangling them and unwinding them and knitting them together. And each of the characters with a speaking part is doing the same thing, with Deza forever commenting on their ability or inability to do so. The self-quotations also give Deza an opportunity to show himself doing the same thing in situ, and reinforce the motif.

The rest of the purpose of these self-quotations pretty much falls under the large and predictable category of “distancing the narrator-Deza from his former self or selves.” I am not ready to make any broad statements on the differences between the narrator-Deza and the character-Deza. I do think the latter is meant to become the former through the course of the novel. But I also think this is tremendously complicated on a first read by the fact that the extended self-quotations muddle your idea of who the narrator-Deza really is.

So, I haven’t done any kind of thorough study, but let’s look at one I quoted from yesterday. Young Pérez Nuix has just told Deza she is going to ask him for a favor that for her is big, “but less so for you.”

‘Ah, so she’s asking me for something,’ I thought. ‘She’s not proposing or offering, she could have done either, but she hasn’t. She’s not unburdening herself, or confessing, or even telling me something, although every request contains some story. If I let her continue, I will already be involved; afterwards, possibly caught and even entangled. It’s always the same, even if I refuse her the favour and do nothing, there is always some bond. How does she know that it’s less of a favour for me? That is something no one can know, neither she nor I, until the favour has been granted and time has passed and accounts have been drawn up or time has ended. But with that one phrase she has involved me, she has casually injected me with a sense of obligation or indebtedness, when I have no obligations to her nor, as I recall, any debts. Perhaps I should simply say straight out: “What makes you think you have the right to ask me a favour, any favour at all? Because you don’t when you think about it, no one has the right to ask anyone, even the return of a thousand favours received is entirely voluntary, there’s no la that demands it, at least no written law.” But we never dare say such things, not even to the stranger who approaches us and whom we do not like and who makes us feel uneasy. It seems ridiculous, but, in the fist instance, there is usually no escape, and I have no escape from young Pérez Nuix: she’s a colleague, she has come to my house on a night so foul that even a dog shouldn’t be out in it; she’s a half-compatriot; I let her in; she speaks my language; she is quite disinterestedly showing me her thighs, and very nice thighs they are; she’s smiling at me; and I am more ofa foreigner here than she is. Yes, I’m new.’

This is classic isolationist Deza. He believes he will become “involved,” “caught,” and “entangled” through no action of his own, only inaction. He feels put-upon by unsought “bond[s].” He feels indignant that someone else would presume to know his thoughts or wishes, and the future. And he is indignant that someone would do this “casually”; he believes that people thoughtlessly entangle each other simply by interacting. Loose lips sink ships. For Deza, that concept has a huge range of meaning, including something like “watch what you say, all the time, and what you see, and what you hear, because any interaction with another human can change your life uncontrollably.” He thinks Pérez Nuix is being irresponsible, and her irresponsibility is harming him, or might harm him, but he’s trapped. And that trap is society: they work together, she has done something that signals an importance or extraordinariness to her visit, they have a national bond in common, Deza initiated the entanglement by acting according to society and letting her in…&tc.

Now, let’s look at the next paragraph, outside the self-quotation:

‘How can you possibly know what something will cost someone else?’ I said, trying to rebel at least against that assumption, against that one part, trying, with that reply, to dissuade her subtly and politely—too much politeness and too much subtlety for someone who really wants something and has already started asking for it. I was seduced, too, by curiosity (not much yet, just the unavoidable minimum; but that is all it takes) and, perhaps, by flattery; discovering that one is capable of helping someone or granting them something, let alone of saving them, usually heralds complications, possible upsets, all disguised as simple satisfactions. It was because of that sense of being flattered that I was about to add: ‘What can I do for you?’ But I stopped myself: that would have meant the immediate cancellation of my mild attempt at dissuasion or timid rebellion. Given that I was going to surrender, I must at least go down fighting, even if I fired only warning shots. There would be no shortage of ammunition.

This Deza still feels some part of what he once felt about entanglements, and he acknowledges the “complications” and “upsets.” But instead of indignation, the tone is more of lamentation—weak, at that. Character-Deza may have rebelled a little with that question. But the rotten core of human frailty, of humanness thriving on community and society, is in him: curiosity, flattery, the desire to help others. He manages not to actively offer his assistance immediately, but he knows he wants to, somewhere. His surrender was always inevitable, and the older narrator-Deza knows it. He’s a bit sad about it. Has he been defeated? Acquiesced? Changed?

Those are questions I should be able to answer, having finished the trilogy. I can’t, not yet at least. Maybe someday.


This is the final post on Your Face Tomorrow, which I read thanks to Richard‘s readalong this past summer. I’m so grateful to have had such a group of fellow readers for what turned out to be one of my favorite reads in recent memory. Don’t miss the rest of my posts on the three volumes—or anyone else’s!

3 comments to “Politeness is a poison, it’s our undoing.”

  • Marias would agree with you. He doesn’t want to call it a “trilogy” either.

    Differentiating thoughts in quotation marks and those outside them, this is another ‘thoughtful’ post!

  • The voices of the other characters becomes part of the question, too. How much of the voice is external, and how much is shaped by Deza. It is easy to accept that Peter Wheeler, for example, a mentor of Deza, speaks so similarly, allusively and digressively and repetitively, but what about Deza’s sister-in-law? So everyone’s speech is filtered through narrator Deza, at whatever distance that is, just as his account of his own thoughts are filtered.

    Ah, what a lot to untangle. Great job finding the knots.

  • But the great isolationist Deza internalizes everything so I found myself willing to, on one hand, suspend any disbelief that perspective, voice or recall invites here, and on the other, thinking the long repetitions of dialogue possible when I compare them to a real person I know with perfect auditory memory. If Deza has such memory, and if he engages the full scope of his observations only in his head or on the pages of this book, it stands to reason (I know I’m reaching here) that we might find all implausible because how often are any of us exposed in any form to such scope and sequence? Which is one reason I am so completely blown away by the whole production…

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