“People whose consciences torment them are the exception”

[W]hy did she do that, they will say of you, why so much fuss and why the quickening pulse, why the trembling, why the somersaulting heart; and of me they will say: why did he speak or not speak, why did he wait so long and so faithfully, why that dizziness, those doubts, that torment, why did he take those particular steps and why so many? And of us both they will say: why all that conflict and struggle, why did they fight instead of just looking and staying still, why were they unable to meet or to go on seeing each other, and why so much sleep, so many dreams, and why that scratch, my fever, my word, your pain, and all those doubts, all that torment?

This passage appears at the end of the first chapter of Book II, Spear, and is repeated in full four more times by the end of Book VII, Farewell, with slight variations in the sequence at the end (extending as far as “why that scratch, my pain, my word, your fever, the dance, and all those doubts, all that torment”). Its last sentence (“why all that conflict and struggle…”) is repeated an additional time on its own.

Your Face TomorrowRepetition is not exactly unusual in Your Face Tomorrow*; Deza relies on it to make himself more clear, to orient the reader (and perhaps even himself) in his own stream of consciousness, to remind the reader (and, again, maybe himself as well) of the connections between things he’s heard and seen and thought before and what he’s hearing or seeing or thinking now, and as a way to triangulate toward a more precise conveyance of meaning. And, of course, the repetition hammers home the importance of the repeated idea.

And note what is important: it’s fair to say that this passage is a summary of the trilogy, so Deza is reminding the reader that nothing that happens in all these books is important, that none of the conflict and struggle has any point. Why did he narrate or not narrate, why did he do any of the things he narrated, and why so much? And why that spear, his fever, their dance, his dream, the poison, and the shadow? (This is not exactly a new issue for Marías; in Voyage Along the Horizon he constructs nested narratives around a novel-within-a-novel that, ultimately, “should never be published and should never have been read or listened to by anyone other than myself.”)

There’s more to learn from the context of the passage’s first appearance. Directly after the passage appears—that is to say, at the very beginning of the second chapter of Book II—Deza considers one of Tupra’s sayings, “It’s the way of the world.” Deza riffs on what this sentence might mean, before it actually appears in the chronology of the story. Tupra won’t actually say it to Deza until after Book II, because in Book II Deza doesn’t work for Tupra yet. That will happen in Book III, Dance, and that’s where Tupra will first have a chance to use his expression.

It’s something Tupra says when Deza expresses concern over something that’s happened—or over something Tupra has done, or something Deza suspects Tupra has done. As the two of them work together on assignments never actually explained to Deza, every once in a while his moral sense kicks in and reminds him that he’s allowing himself to participate in harming people, even if unknowingly and indirectly. But that’s the way of the world, Tupra tells him each time—fever and spear, scratch and dance, are the way of the world, and why pretend otherwise?

Still, Deza always has a sense that there’s more to it than that, and Sir Peter Wheeler, his mentor of sorts, offers a fresh perspective. He doesn’t seem to disagree with Tupra about “the way of the world,” but he points out to Deza that some people can live with things and others can’t. Deza, in fact, can, according to Wheeler—if he hadn’t thought that, Wheeler would never have invited him to work with Tupra at all. But Wheeler has intimate experience of someone who couldn’t live with knowing she’d done the kinds of things Deza had done, with tragic consequences. What matters is what you can live with.

I liked Your Face Tomorrow when I first read it, and I remember Voyage Along the Horizon as almost a guilty pleasure, but it’s impressive to see how strongly geared Marías seems to be to exploring themes and ideas of particular interest to me: the dangers of talking, the pointlessness of everything, the absurdity of the past receding, the incomprehensibility of the other. He deserves a more central place in my reading mind, and a better look into the way he’s developed these ideas over time.

*This time through, I compiled a pretty thorough list of mentions of what I call “the list,” that is, any of the items in the “scratch, fever, etc.” list above. At least two of these items appear together in 28 separate passages across the whole trilogy.

Post title from the line: “‘People whose consciences torment them are the exception, as are old-fashioned people who think: “Spear, fever, my pain, words, sleep and dreams,” and other similarly pointless thoughts.’”

Thanks again to Richard and Stu for hosting Spanish Lit Month once again, an event I’ve been privileged to participate in over the years. And I’d like to thank Richard especially for being my initial impetus to read Your Face Tomorrow the first time—which turned out to have been a for-me-surprising five years ago! It was certainly time for a re-read. I don’t often say that books “changed my life,” but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this one had changed a lot about how I look at the world—a lot about my inner monologue. The second reading was as rewarding as I could have hoped it would be.

1 comment to “People whose consciences torment them are the exception”

  • Thanks for the shout-out, Nicole–it makes me very happy to hear that Your Face Tomorrow has resonated so strongly for you over the years. I should make time for a reread myself. Your point about how Marías approaches “the pointlessness of everything” appeals to me both because I sometimes agree with that from real life experience and yet Marías himself often seems more humanistic than nihilistic while pulling the strings in his novels. Interesting high wire act that.
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