“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!

“It’s in your interests that your neighbor should be in your debt….”

Deza interprets people for a living, at least when he’s working for the group, and today I’ll do some interpreting of Deza. I may even make some progress toward answering the question of why Deza and his wife cannot live together.

Deza lives his life in a strange position during much of the trilogy. He frequently notes that the reality of his life seems muted because he’s living in a different country than his own. In Spain, he could probably not have held a job like he has with MI6—not because it wouldn’t exist, or because he couldn’t get hired, but because he wouldn’t want to perform the duties or think so much about his patria—because, in short, of his discomfort with the state.

He’s not alone in this discomfort. Sir Peter Wheeler seems to share it to a large extent. In “Fever,” while he’s discussing the Spanish Civil War with Deza, Sir Peter tells him that:

‘They’re all oppressors, its amazing that people don’t realize this ab ovo, it makes little difference what cause they’re fighting for, what public cause, of what their propaganda motives are. Frauds and transcendental innocents alike all describe these motives as historical or ideological, I would never call them that, it’s too ridiculous. It’s amazing that some people still believe there are exceptions, because there aren’t any, not in the long run, and there never have been. Well, can you think of any? The Left as the exception, how absurd. What a waste.’

Later in “Fever,” Sir Peter makes two key points against the state: that those in power wield an authority frightening beyond imagination, and that the general public—those who allegedly legitimate the power of the first group—is too hopelessly stupid to protect you from them.

‘[Y]ou have no idea how frightening it is when someone with power and influence decides to deny you, or when many people band together in agreement, although agreement isn’t always necessary, all that’s needed is a malicious deed or word that takes and spreads like fire, and convinces others, it’s like an epidemic. You don’t know how dangerous persuasive people can be, never pit yourself against such people unless you are prepared to become even more despicable than they are and unless you’re sure that your imagination, no, your capacity for invention is even greater than theirs, and that your outbreak of cholera will spread faster and in the right direction. You have to bear in mind that most people are stupid. Stupid and frivolous and credulous, you have no idea just how stupid, frivolous and credulous they are, they’re a permanently blank sheet without a mark on it….’

Deza dutifully reports these disquisitions from Sir Peter, but for now at least keeps himself a bit to himself. He clearly feels sympathy, especially where the subject is the Spanish Civil War, as he was affected personally by much of what happened there in the name of, or in pursuit of, the state.

For his own part Sir Peter, participant that he was, must have believed his imagination and capacity for invention were top-notch, that his outbreaks of cholera would spread fast and far and wide. He also seems like he may simply have been willing to run that risk. Tupra, though, is always so sure of himself—partly because we see him really acting, not just recalling events from decades earlier, and his arrogance is unmistakable.

For example, Deza expresses misgivings about Tupra’s collection of poison, the videos that include some people doing truly immoral and even evil things, and many people doing simply embarrassing or perhaps illegal things, which exist only so that someone like Tupra can take advantage of the fact “that people should be weak or base or greedy or cowardly, that they should fall into temptation and drop the occasional very large gaffe, or even be party to or commit misdemeanors.” Tupra recognizes the reality completely, admits it, but has no compunction whatsoever.

‘[I]t’s the bedrock of the State. 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). If those things didn’t exist, or not enough, the State would have to invent them. It already does. Why do you think new offenses are constantly being created? What wasn’t an offense becomes one, so that no one is ever entirely clean. Why do you think we intervene in and regulate everything, even where it’s unnecessary or where it doesn’t concern us? We need laws to be violated and broken. What would be the point of having laws if everyone obeyed them? We’d never get anywhere. We couldn’t exist. The State needs infractions, even children know that, although they don’t know that they know. They’re the first to commit them. We’re brought up to join in the game and to collaborate right from the start, and we keep playing the game until the very last, even when we’re dead. The debt is never settled.’

Deza internalizes this argument somewhat, later mulling the poisonous tapes and the “boring or sordid” episodes from them, as opposed to the violent ones, noting that “drugs really provide a lot of material, perhaps that’s why no government wants to legalize them, it would mean reducing the number of possible offenses.” And while he only judges Tupra on these holdings in the most oblique of ways, he’s not comfortable with what all this power means, just as he’s not comfortable when he finds De la Garza is viscerally afraid of him after his beating.

Before that beating, Deza is searching the ladies’ room at the disco for De la Garza or at least his companion, Mrs. Manoia. He pretends to be a security guard and questions the line of women who are sitting in their stalls to make sure they are alone and not his prey. He notes the submissiveness of most of the voices, along with just one angry one. “[G]iven that people now meekly allow themselves to be frisked at any airport or public building, and obediently take off their shoes or even get undressed at the orders of some grim-faced customs officer,” he comments in the narrative, “it is little wonder that they should accept importunate demand and interruptions and impertinent questions even while engaged in the most private of occupations.” Government workers making importunate demands—people like himself and Tupra, that is—are “grim-faced” in his mind, and “impertinent,” and invaders of privacy and dignity. In the previous volume, Sir Peter planted this specific seed, complaining about “these pusillanimous, authoritarian fools” in control after September 11, 2001. “We didn’t fight those who wanted to control each and every aspect of our lives only to see our grandchildren come along and slyly but very precisely fulfil the crazed fantasies of the very enemies we vanquished,” he says—but to some extent, at least, he’s passing Deza on to just one such grandchild.

But what does any of this have to do with Luisa? Deza’s ultimate discomfort, expressed sometimes as a discomfort with the state, is really with people, or other people. All those faces he didn’t want to become yesterday? They weren’t all bad. But Deza doesn’t want anyone else’s face. All the talk about not talking—Deza doesn’t want to share anything with other people, because they simply aren’t to be trusted. Distance must be maintained for one’s own protection. And his frustration is especially apparent when “other people” work themselves up into a society (just the kind of thing that created the state). He narrates his own former stream of consciousness in “Dance”:

‘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 law 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.’

This is what Deza wishes he could say. He wants to avoid entanglements. He can see very well they are unavoidable. And he blames himself—he is his own fever, his own spear (He never was the marrying type, and yet somehow…). If only he could have been more like De la Garza:

That is the good fortune of the arrogant, they never feel responsible or have a bad conscience because they have no conscience and are totally irresponsible, they are bewildered and taken aback by any punishment or slight, even one they have determinedly brought on themselves, they are never at fault, and often convince others, as if by contagion, of that spontaneous conviction of theirs and end up getting off scot-free.

Note the quote in the post title. This is something Tupra tells Deza as well, during their conversation about the health of the state. But Deza sees himself, as in the quote about favors, as the potential debtor. He’s not so sure as Tupra that he will always be on the more imaginative, inventive side, with the stronger plague and the better dirt.

“That is what poison does, it infiltrates and contaminates everything.”

In the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow, Deza witnesses a horrifying event. After Rafita de la Garza, a bumbling, offensive acquaintance of both Tupra and, much to his dismay, Deza, behaves in appropriately toward the wife of Tupra’s Italian “business associate,” or whatever you want to call it, Tupra must deal with him. He does this by brutally beating him in the handicapped bathroom of a London disco, and pulling out a sword with which he threatens to decapitate him.

As nonchalant as Tupra may behave afterward, and as much as Deza masks his own discomfort in front of their companions the Manoias, Deza is completely put off by this and demands an explanation of Tupra when Tupra insists on driving him home. In the end, Tupra insists Deza go back to his house instead, where Tupra has something to show him. That something consists, we find out in volume three, of a DVD of snuff-like movies—home movies or secret spy-like movies of important people or famous people or future important or famous people doing drugs or having sex or committing violent acts. Deza doesn’t want to watch, especially some of the worst scenes, but Tupra insists.

As I looked and half-looked and saw, a poison was entering me, and when I use that word ‘poison,’ I’m not doing so lightly or purely metaphorically, but because something entered my consciousness that had not been there before and provoked in me an immediate feeling of creeping sickness, of something alien to my body and to my sight and to my mind, like an inoculation, and that last term is spot on eymologically, for it contains at its root the Latin ‘oculus,’ from which it comes, and it was through my eyes that this new and unexpected illness entered, through my eyes which were absorbing images and registering them and retaining them, and which could no longer erase them as one might erase a bloodstain on the floor, still less not have seen them.

Deza’s hysterical descriptions, I think, really do this justice. Or so I imagine; I can only imagine, or rather not imagine, as I have not scene anything like what Deza saw in that Peter Pan–like house that night.

[A]nd it really was a mortal poison, the images—what I glimpsed of them, for my eyelids and my turned-away face were quick to save me—entered my mind as if they were an ugly reptile or a kind of serpent, or perhaps an eel, or leeches under the skin, how can I put it, internal leeches, the images slipped inside me like a foreign body that caused me immediate pain and a sense of opppression and suffocation and the urgent need for someone to remove it (‘Let me sit heavy on thy soul’), but you cannot root out what enters through the eyes, nor what enters through the ears, it installs itself inside you and there’s nothing to be done about it, or else you have to wait some time in order to be able to persuade yourself that you did not see or hear what you did see or hear—there’s always a doubt or the trace of a doubt—that it was imagination or a misunderstanding ora mirage or a hallucination or a malicious misinterpretation, we are none of us immune from them when our thoughts and our perceptions become twisted and we judge everything in the same slanted sinister light.

The poison takes root in Deza, although he doesn’t like what it does to him. Several months after the incident in the handicapped bathroom, Deza wants to make sure De la Garza is okay, has recovered. What he doesn’t realize is that just the sight of him will be enough to send De la Garza into almost a state of shock. “I found the gulf between his perceptions and my knowledge almost funny,” Deza narrates, “and yet, at the same time, it was distressing to have someone see me that way, as a danger, as someone threatening and violence. De la Garza was almost beside himself, on tenterhooks.”

When he returns to Madrid, it’s the poison he’s imbibed through Tupra that will impel Deza to defend Luisa, or himself, or the two of them, from Custardoy, her lover. When he surprises her with his return, he finds she’s trying to hide a black eye. From her sister he learns there has been at least one other incident, and the two deduce that she’s being abused. Deza is ready, with violence of his own, to put Custardoy out of the picture.

He never becomes really comfortable with doing so, not fully out of the picture at least. As Tupra tells him, it’s a matter of imagination. He can’t imagine himself taking care of business in this way. And what he does imagine pushes him in the opposite direction. The Deza narrating the final volume gives us the following direct quote from the stream-of-consciousness of the Deza living through the incident where he threatens Custardoy’s life.

‘What face am I wearing now?’ I thought again. ‘It’s the face of all those men and rather fewer women who have held someone else’s life in their hands and it could, from one moment to the next, come to resemble the face of those who chose to take that life. Not Reresby’s face, who did not, in the end, snatch away De la Garza’s life, and who, if he has killed other people, did not do so in my presence, like Wheeler with his outbreaks of cholera and malaria and plague. But it would join the face of that vicious malagueño who baited and killed Marés, the face of that Madrid woman who boasted on the tram of having killed a child by smashing its head against a wall, of those militiamen who finished off my young Uncle Alfonso and left him dead in the gutter, even the faces of Orlov and Bielov and Carlos Contreras, who tortured Andeur Nin in Alcalá and possibly flayed him alive…and the face of the man who screamed at another man in a garage, his mouth so close to the other’s face that he sprayed him with saliva, and then shot him at point-blank range beneath the earlobe, as I could do now to Custardoy with no one here to cry out ‘Don’t!’ as I did to Reresby and probably stopped him, I could put the barrel right there and that would be it, blood spurting out and tiny bits of bone; the face of the woman in green, her skirt all rucked up and wearing a sweater and a pearl necklace and high heels but with no stockings, who crushed the skull of a man with a hammer and sat astride him to strike his forehead over and over; …the face of Manoia, yes him too, who scooped out the eyes of his prisoner as if they were peach stones and then, according to Tupra, slit his throat; and all those centuries before, the face of Ingram Frizer, who stabbed to death the poet Marlowe in a tavern in Deptford, even though his face is unknown and his name, too, remains uncertain. …My face will resemble and be assimilated into that of all those men and rather fewer women who were once masters of time and who held in their hand the hourglass—in the form of a weapon, in the form of an order—and decided suddenly, without lingering or delaying, to stop time, thus obliging others no longer to desire their own desires and to leave even their own first name behind. I don’t like being linked to those faces.’

I have not quoted so extensively out of laziness or so you can see the mania that so often seems to come into Deza’s narration, but because this shows (and I have left out many other examples of faces) how layered the connections are of all the little allusions that appear and reappear throughout the series, and most importantly, that the poison was injected long before the snuff film, and long before Tupra. Hearing the story of Marés from his father, seeing the photo of his Uncle Alfonso, being told about the woman on the tram. The whole evening spent in Sir Peter’s study reading up on the Spanish Civil War. Just living in Madrid, where it seems everyone and their family still bear the traces of the war, where there are so many hands and eyes missing, as Deza will later note. But none of it touched him so deeply until he watched it with his own eyes and heard it with his own ears. Up to then he could go on, disturbed but divorced, thinking that people can’t act like that because if they did, they wouldn’t be able to live.

The Structure of Your Face Tomorrow

When I finished the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow, I contemplated the many episodes that make up Deza’s narrative as he follows the stream of his consciousness, and now that I’ve completed the series I decided to do some real work and go through and analyze the structure of the whole thing. It’s a bit involved, and highly subjective, but I think reveals some interesting things about the trilogy.

First, I went through and “coded” passages in the book according to what overall “theme” or motif I thought they most belonged to. The selection and classification into themes is where most of the subjectivity comes in but I don’t think available “scientific” alternatives are really an improvement. So I used what I’ll call my best judgment to come up with eleven main “themes” of the novel plus a “wrap-up” section at the end of the last section, where I felt too many things were covered too quickly to really subdivide further. Typically, a section of narrative had to be at least three or four pages long for me to count it as its own section, so simple allusions or brief, sentence- or paragraph-long interludes aren’t counted here. Based on the classification of each episode I made this way, I calculated how much of each book, each volume, and the total trilogy was taken up with each theme. You can see all the original data the calculations are based on in this Google Docs spreadsheet.
Continue reading The Structure of Your Face Tomorrow

“I think I know her face and I stake everything on that”

Amateur Reader says he’s not sure what Henry James meant by his famous “loose baggy monsters” quote, but I’m sorely tempted to apply the term to the whole of the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. Does not its length alone qualify it for such status? I may have been running a bit late at the end, but I did read 1,273 pages of Marías this summer, which I think could fairly be called a monstrous amount. Not to say it wasn’t good! I’d be much more inclined to say it was one of Bolaño’s “great, imperfect, torrential works,” the way it seems to suck in everything.

It doesn’t actually suck in everything; on Monday I’m going to look at the episodic nature of the trilogy. But what it does suck in continues to circulate. Not only does Deza obsessively re-describe the same things, he also returns over and over again to the same motifs and images, sometimes using them for the same purpose and sometimes for a new purpose. They float through the trilogy, new ones appearing every so often, right up until the final volume, and old ones never seeming to leave.

The main one, arguably at least, is the one that involves so many of the volumes’ subtitles. From the beginning of the first book they appear: “enough, no more: no more fever or pain; no word or spear, not even sleep and dreams.” Later, in volume two, “And thus you are your own pain and fever or can be, and then…and then, who knows…” “(there is always more to come, there is always a little more, one minute, the spear, one second, fever, another second, sleep and dreams, and a little more for the dance—spear, fever, my pain, words, sleep and dream, and still a little more, for the last dance)”

There are many more. “And what else?” The question, asked of Deza and his siblings by their father, repeated over and over, often as a reference to Tupra. “Do not linger or delay.” “Snow on shoulders.” “Your face tomorrow.” “The Streets of Laredo.” Urgings not to speak or tell one’s story. Obsessive images that come back over and over; death with the hourglass, Tupra as Sir Cruelty, Sir Punishment, but not Sir Death. De la Garza and his “brutal” language, his hairnet. The repeated elements range from the mundane, like that, a ridiculous vision stuck forever in Deza’s consciousness that he simply can’t help mentioning whenever it’s remotely appropriate, to these much more obsessive-seeming phrases. What does “snow on shoulders” mean to him? And what, what is this fever and spear, this pain, this torment, all these doubts? No, I think I know what those are. And I think, after all, those are the book.

The most extended version of that motif, applied directly to Deza’s relationship with his wife, is repeated almost verbatim, first toward the end of the second volume, and again toward the end of the third, with variations only in punctuation and the last line. (I feel like I should immediately start re-reading all these books, and do a dissertation on them or something, because I’m sure there’s a third repetition, and who knows, even a fourth, I want to document all these, it would be a wonderful project.)

Why 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 pain, my word, your fever, the dance, and all those doubts, all that torment?

The second time around, that last line is amended to “that scratch, my pain, my word, your fever, our poison, the shadow, and all those doubts, all that torment?”

Questions with no answer, or with a very simple answer—that’s what life is like. I am my own fever, my own pain.

Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell by Javier Marías

I ended my post on the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow with a question: is Deza in control of his narrative, consciously choosing to let the thread go and pick it up again as he so often comments on others doing, “or is it a true natural stream of consciousness coming through—and is there a difference?”

The third volume, Poison, Shadow, and Farewell, doesn’t come close to answering this question outright, but Deza does provide some useful information when he begins to turn his interpretive faculties on himself. He is spurred in this direction by “young Pérez Nuix,” a colleague in the interpretive work he does for Tupra, who bursts out laughing at a hypothetical Deza gives about himself and Tupra.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘it just amuses me that even an intelligent man like you should suffer from the same inability. It’s astonishing how wrong our perception of ourselves always is, how hopeless we are at gauging and weighing up our strengths and weaknesses. Even people like us—gifted and highly trained in examining and deciphering our fellow man—become one-eyed idiots when we make ourselves the object of our studies. It’s probably the lack of perspective and the impossibility of observing yoruself without knowing that you’re doing so.’

Much later, in another conversation with his young colleague, Deza disagrees with her on the care novelists put into their work. He thinks they must take great pains what to include, while she doubts that: “‘If that were the case, no one would ever write anything. It’s just not possible to live that cautiously, it’s too paralyzing.’”

It’s this paralysis, I suspect, that leads Deza in quite another direction: he puts everything in, or at least, he puts in all sides of what he does put in, with his constant hedging and amending and revisiting.

One of the subjects of Deza’s investigations, or rather interpretations, is a famous aging pop singer, alias Dick Dearlove. Think Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, perhaps Elton John, you know the type: past his prime, still easily selling out shows, still gets plenty of sexy young men and women when he tours a place like Spain but admits he now has to pay for it back home in England. Deza’s main diagnosis here is “narrative horror,” or what Tupra and the rest of the group have previously named the “Kennedy-Mansfield” syndrome. Kennedy as in John F., and Mansfield as in Jayne. The issue is one of having the carefully constructed narrative of one’s life, worked out painstakingly over decades to make one appear just thus and so, undone by some late-hour scandal or tragedy, or overshadowed by a spectacular and memorable death. We all have some narrative of our lives, some constructed Self, on which we may place greater or lesser importance. For K-M syndrome sufferers, the importance is immense.

For someone like Deza, it seems much less, but it still exists. It is that which leads him to warn us, over and over, and then over again, never to say anything to anyone or tell anyone anything or let a single word escape us that might reveal something about us—because such revelation will only be used against us, turned against us and our narrative somehow to undo the self or story we have created. Deza obviously does tell us his story, but his particular style of narrative horror leads him to a variation on hysterical realism. Deza doesn’t describe every little detail of everything in every scene. Instead, he hysterically describes and then re-describes the same things, sometimes in contradictory ways, giving as many sides as possible to the reader so the reader can do his or her best to put things back together again, perhaps not getting it right but hopefully also not getting it wrong.

It’s taken me far too long to enter my own thoughts on this final volume of Your Face Tomorrow, readalong graciously hosted by (the very patient) Richard. But I will make up for it, I hope, because this giant of a trilogy has inspired me far beyond the confines of a single post. If I were smart, I would have held this until Monday and done a week. But I’ve made you all wait long enough, and I do believe a five-post series is on the way all the same.

Your Face Tomorrow: Dance and Dream by Javier Marías

By the end of the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, Amateur Reader led me to wonder how sustainable the voice of Jacques Deza would be through the remaining two volumes. Could this stream of consciousness, of endless hesitation and qualification, continue for hundreds more pages? Was it not too exhausting?

The stream does continue, at least through volume two, Dance and Dream, or rather, Dance and Dream. Deza’s particular brand of stream-of-consciousness narration leads him to tell his story in alternating partial episodes. One major episode, and perhaps the main one, in Dance and Dream, is the episode of the Manoias and the night club. Deza’s boss, Tupra, has a meeting with Mr. Manoia and his wife in a disco, and brings Deza along to translate and to keep the wife occupied. They are rudely interrupted by de la Garza, a fool we met in the previous volume, who acts unforgivably until Tupra’s revenge is even less forgivable still (or is it?). This episode continues through the ride home, with Tupra and Deza dropping off the Manoias at the Ritz and then Tupra driving Deza home afterward.

This one episode is broken up many times into many pieces of different length. And perhaps this episode itself is an interruption of some other episode—perhaps of the episode of Pérez Nuix coming to Deza’s apartment, the cliffhanger of the first volume that still remains largely unexplained throughout the second. Deza’s digressions rarely feel like digressions, but like episodes of their own. And, as I just noted, the night club episode may itself be one such “digression.” For example, the episode of Deza on the phone with Luisa, asking her about Botox, is doubtless an integral part of the story of his relationship with his estranged wife, and just as compelling as anything else he writes about. Above all, he’s telling the story in his own way, as he wants to tell it, turning and twisting as his mind goes to other elements of the whole, but always returning in his own good time to whatever the story is “really” about.

And as Deza does this, he constantly comments on just how well all the other characters in the novels do the same. In the first volume he discussed both Wheeler and Tupra in this way, and how they might seem to digress when explaining something or telling a story, but always went back at the appropriate moment and in their own good time. Luisa, on the phone going off on tangents, might not return to what they’re really talking about. He feels the need to nudge her. And later he must nudge Tupra as well, when Deza insists on sticking to a subject Tupra would rather shift to something else.

It’s all just another way for Deza to show us how perceptive he is, just in case we haven’t noticed exactly what he’s doing. He notices it in everyone, in the briefest of conversations. He must, then, notice it in himself as well, and consciously choose to narrate the trilogy in this manner. Is he in control this whole time, telling us just what he wants to just when he wants to, or is it a true natural stream of consciousness coming through—and is there a difference?

Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear by Javier Marías

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!

My friend’s novel is, unfortunately, mediocre

I didn’t expect to get any mileage at all out of Voyage Along the Horizon, a relatively minor work. I assumed it would be a curiosity to alternate with the more traditional English and American narratives of life aboard ship. And it turned out to be curious. It actually had so many unexpected things in common with the other narratives, and so many other things unexpectedly different.*

As a little diversion, it is really pretty good. A somewhat negative point is that it’s really one of these novels about “storytelling.” Just, you know, how many can we do? Victor Arledge, a writer, reaches his ruin by obsessing over a story. It gets so meta Arledge actually lies and tells Bayham he would like to write a novel about the kidnapping because he thinks it might convince Bayham to spill.

The inner-Voyage Along the Horizon is in appropriately stilted prose, and it’s not exactly clear that it’s a good book. I was beginning to suspect it was not when, within the span of two pages, various passengers on the Tallahassee, headed toward Antarctica, were described as “cold,” “icy,” and even “glacial” (!). Javier Marías might not think it’s very good either.

Mr. Branshaw has been the novel’s champion for years, but after reading it aloud to the narrator is completely disenchanted and no longer believes it should even be published.

And it may even be possible that Voyage Along the Horizon is in fact a very respectable novel, but then what is ‘respectable’ compared to the destiny I had envisioned for it? A terrible disappointment, I can assure you. No, no—please do not interrupt me. I am telling you the truth. My friend’s novel should never be published and should never have been read or listened to by anyone other than myself.

Wait a minute. The novel we just read isn’t worth reading? The novel we are reading right now isn’t worth reading?

The narrator actually thinks it was. He remains impressed by Voyage Along the Horizon even years later, though, amusingly, thinks Victor Arledge’s work inferior, which “made me wonder why Mr. Branshaw’s friend had dedicated his life and fortune to learning the motive that could have driven such an unexceptional author to abandon his literary vocation.”

So, to recap: why did the friend bother writing it, why did Branshaw bother trying to publish it, and why did we bother reading it? I halfway feel someone’s played a joke on me.

*Also curious, I believe this is the first piece of Spanish literature I have ever read. How is that possible?

Water was far from the only thing that made things shift and sway and rock wildly aboard the Tallahassee

Margaret Cohen borrows a line from White Jacket to describe the ship in “The Chronotopes of the Sea”: “a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.” A state in itself, a tiny piece of land floating around the blue and white and brown water. And because it’s tiny, and cut off, no one can come and no one can leave.

This is a central force behind the action of the inside novel Voyage Along the Horizon. Victor Arledge, Hugh Everett Bayham, Léonide Meffre, the Handls, Captain Kerrigan, all are stuck together for the duration of the Antarctic voyage. They are also all stuck with the crew and the scientists. The artists, it should be mentioned, are there to make a floating colony and create austral-inspired art. The scientists are there to perform their own art in the Antarctic. But the artists seem like a bunch of dilettantes, deciding to make port calls all over the Mediterranean before setting out in earnest. This means before the trip even makes Gibraltar, everyone is ready to strangle everyone else.

This itself is almost an inversion of the normal ship. As Richard Henry Dana put it in Two Years Before the Mast:

…at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap.

But on the Tallahassee, if only losing a limb were so easily accomplished. In fact, the boatswain does disappear and turn up near Alexandria, dead, and not only is no one upset, no one even misses him or does much to look for him (this is among the passengers; we have limited knowledge of the crew). And Captain Kerrigan disappears in a way when he is shut up in his cabin, and no one could be happier. Eventually he even escapes the ship and while the passengers may want him brought to justice they are thrilled to be rid of him. No one can get off this ship fast enough—except the scientists. They want to continue to Antarctica, but the ship never makes it past Tangiers.

While Victor Arledge’s antics cause a decent part of the awkwardness on board, it’s really Kerrigan whose actions make the trip fall apart. The whole voyage was undertaken almost entirely through the force of his personality. He persuaded his own artistic friends and acquaintances to make the huge project their own, and after he is on the outs the glue holding them together quickly melts away.

That’s getting ahead of myself a little. Why does Kerrigan end up locked up? The immediate cause is a drunken rampage that culminates in him actually throwing another passenger off the ship, and threatening to throw off another. The cause of the drunkenness is depression brought on by thoughts of his lost love, part of a past no one but Arledge knows about. That story forms another of the novel’s nested narratives: Arledge recounts for Bayham the sordid history of Kerrigan—not really a captain—as a smuggler and pirate. Kerrigan’s got a whole slew of ship and blue water happenings in his past. This isn’t the first time he’s wanted to get rid of some passengers on his ship; he acquired his lost love after killing her husband and their friend on a desert island he helped them discover in the Pacific.

Another salient feature of the chronotope of the ship is discipline. The captain is its king, and his word is law. On the Tallahassee, Kerrigan is not really captain, and the captain is stabbed by Kerrigan and laid up in bed much of the voyage. Fordington-Lewthwaite, formerly third in command, ends up in charge, and he is ready to begin the authoritarianism that thus far the ship has been missing. He’s all too happy to take charge of Kerrigan, and to humiliate Arledge just for the hell of it.

In many ship-based novels, this discipline is also reflected in the activities of all the people on board. Those people are usually sailors, and sailors are always working. According to Cohen,

In land-based narratives, characters generally maneuver to procure social advantage. On board ship, characters work, and indeed this chronotope, in interaction with other chronotopes of the sea, provides one of the most extended opportunities for the narratie dramatization of human labor.

Not so on the Tallahassee, where Jane Austen has been transplanted into the middle of the Mediterranean. First, we hardly see the crew at all. But the passengers are supposed to be working, too. Isn’t writing and composing work? They don’t do it though; they sit around idle, making small talk and pissing each other off. Maybe that’s why they want to get rid of each other. If they were hard at work they would be bonding over the shared task of sailing the ship, but instead they are jockeying for social position and since the losers can’t disappear from the scene the conflict boils over.