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Javier Marías: Your Face Tomorrow, Volume I: Fever and Spear

Javier Marías’s name pops up frequently in the high altitudes of literary discussion.  Several Nobel laureates and those deserving of the Nobel consider him a master (and also deserving of the Nobel).  All of his books look incredibly interesting to me, but I hadn’t read any.  Later this year the third and final volume in his trilogy Your Face Tomorrowwill be published in English.  I’ve had my eye on these books since KevinfromCanada mentioned how much he enjoyed them and was looking forward to the last volume.  His recommendation and the annual Nobel Prize hype was enough to convince me it was time to read Your Face Tomorrow, Volume I: Fever and Spear (Tu rostro mañana 1. Fiebre y lanza 2002; tr. from the Spanish by by Margaret Jull Costa 2005).

your-face-tomorrow-vol-1

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

If you peruse the first lines of Marías’s books, I can almost guarantee you’ll want to read more . . . ahhh, I’ll indulge myself and put a few here for you to peruse—this is a post about Marías too.

I did not want to konw but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.
                   —A Heart So White

And:

No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again.
                  Tomorrow in the Battle Think On Me

I feel that the opening of Fever and Spear is no exception, also offering an introduction that tantalizes the reader with strange details we only hope will get fleshed out in the novel:

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.

It is somewhat ironic, perhaps, that the narrator’s warning against telling people anything are the very lines that begin this story.  The reason for these lines becomes quickly apparent: someone has betrayed the narrator, someone close, and tellinggave the means to the betrayal.  Or, at least that’s what I think; we’re not told the whole story by a long shot in this first volume, and, while those lines are dealt with thematically, we don’t know how they relate directly to the narrator’s life yet.  Not knowing the story, particularly the betrayer’s identity, however, is also part of the irony, for our narrator, Jaime (or Jacobo, or Jacque, or Iago, or Jack, depending on the speaker) Deza is astute—his powers of perception are capable of stripping the covers off of anybody in the room.  Indeed, the job he acquires during this story was to simply observe people the government brought in for questioning.  Are they telling the truth?  But that’s just a general question.  They get much more specific:  What is that man’s relationship with that woman?  Will that military leader kill the president in a coup should things get rough?  His gift is a benefit to the government, but seems to be a bit of a curse to him:

I did, for some time, listen and notice and interpret and tell, and I was paid to do so during that time, but it was something I had always done and that I continue to do, passively and involuntarily, without effort and without reward, I probably can’t help it now, it’s just my way of being in the world, it will go with me to my death, and only then will I rest from it.

Mr. Deza’s family history is quite fascinating.  His father and mother were highly involved in and highly persecuted in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.  Indeed, his father’s life was nearly taken from him as a result betrayal from his best friend.  When young, Deza asked his father if he had an intuition that his friend was capable of such betrayal.  No.  His father said that never did he see any indication in his friend.  Never did he doubt, and even in retrospect cannot see where he should have doubted.  Deza cannot accept this.

But even so.  How could he have spent half his life with a colleague, a close friend—half his childhood, his schooldays, his youth—without having so much as an inkling of his true nature, or, at least, of his possible nature?  (But perhaps any nature is possible in all of us.)  How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us?  How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breathe their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience that they would have had to contain for who knows how many years?  How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged  beneath the face  you will show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?

I’m finding this review difficult to write.  I cannot capture, not even close, the amount of depth to this story.  It’s incredibly dense and requires some time to digest.  Betrayal, while so far the focus of this review, is actually in this book a side note, almost incidental, though it seems it will come up in future volumes.  Perhaps it is best, then, to tell a bit about the book’s structure.  I don’t want my lack of ability to affect your desire to get to know this amazing book.  Give me a bit more time.

This book is structured around a few simple events: Peter Wheeler, a father-figure teacher Deza knew while at Oxford, has asked Deza to come to a party.  Deza is back in London from Spain, having just separated from his wife.  Wheeler asks Deza to observe an individual at this party, one Bertram Tupra, who will be attending the party with his new girlfriend.  Tupra arrives with a woman introduced as Beryl.  Deza does attends and tries to do as he was told.  Here’s some of the humor in the book.

‘Tell me, what did you think of Beryl?  How did she strike you?  What impression did she make?’

‘Beryl?’ I said, caught slightly offguard, I hadn’t imagined he would ask me about her, but rather about his friend Bertram, if he was a friend, and about whom he forewarned me.  ‘Well, we barely spoke really, she seemed to take very little notice of anyone else, and she didn’t appear to be enjoying herself much either, as if she was here out of duty.  But she’s got very good legs, and she knows she has and makes the most of them.  She’s got rather too many teeth and too big a jaw, but she’s still rather pretty.  Her smell is the most attractive thing about her, her best feature: an unusual, pleasant, very sexual smell.’

Wheeler shot me a glance that was a mixture of reproof and mockery, although his eyes seemed amused. . . . ‘As I’ve todl you before, you’re far too alone dodwn there in London.  That isn’t what I meant at all.  I would never have dared even to ask myself if you had or hadn’t found Beryl’s animal humours stimulating, you’ll have to forgive my lack of curiosity about your proclivities in that area.  I meant regarding Tupra, what impression did you have about her in relation to him, in her relation to him now.  That’s what I want to know, not if you were aroused by her . . .’, he paused for a moment, ‘by her secretions. What do you take me for?’

That’s as far into the novel as I’ll take you, but I think it’s still worth mentioning the compelling discussions in the book about the Spanish Civil War and about the “Keep Silent” propaganda passed around during World War II.  All of it ties together nicely in this volume, but I hope it broadens out in the next volumes.

To close this review, I’d like to move away from the thematic elements inherent in the book’s prose and structure.  Some of the most compelling parts of the book actually don’t contain such political or intellectual overtones.  Rather, they are very intimate.  Deza is deeply lonely in London, and he’s most sympathetic when he yearns for his family in Spain.

. . . it’s wretched knowing the precise habits of a house from which you are suddenly absent and to which you return now only as a visitor and always with prior warning or like a close relative and only occasionally, yet remain caught in the web of settings and rhythms that you established and which sheltered you and seemed impossible without your contribution and without your existence . . .

At its heart, it seems (I’ll have to wait until I know more to be more sure) to be a novel about more than just our perception of others but also about how those perspectives shape our perspective of ourself.

8 thoughts on “Javier Marías: Your Face Tomorrow, Volume I: Fever and Spear

  1. cbjames says:

    I usually avoid Noble Prize winners whenever possible, but this sounds very good, and he hasn’t won the prize yet. Excellent review. Another one for the TBR stack.

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks cb! I’m one who tends to look for authors who should win the Nobel Prize rather than those who do :). Next in my sight is is Antonio Lobo Antunes.

  3. There is a part of me that is very glad I read the first two volumes of Your Face Tomorrow before I started blogging — I would have found reviewing this book and volume two every bit as difficult as you did, Trevor. And now that you have started the project, I can comfortably just comment on your thoughts instead of trying to construct my own.

    I got interested in Marias as the result of a TLS review of volume three — fortunately, it made reference to earlier works and I was intrigued enough that I started there. All Souls is a novel based on Marias’ two years at Oxford; Dark Back of Time is described by the author as “a false novel” following All Souls — Oxford being Oxford, there was much speculation about what real people the characters in the first novel represent. All of this is background to the narrative that becomes Your Face Tomorrow. In a way, I like that you haven’t read the other books — it adds a new perspective to how you experience the trilogy.

    Marias does take some getting used to but I found that if you can get yourself into his rhythm he becomes a most rewarding author. As your review notes, Deza’s “job” is to be a perceptive observor and interpreter of observations — Marias expects the same thing from his readers. If you can get into that frame of mind, you are truly into the book.

    I am less familiar with Marias’ “Spanish” books than those set in England — I do hope to be able to read and review A Heart So White before volume three of Your Face Tomorrow is published in English next month.

  4. Trevor says:

    I remember reading an article on Marias that suggests his books don’t have fixed beginnings and endings, that they all tend to drift into others. I’m anxious to read the two other Oxford books you mentioned, Kevin, but I’ll see how it changes things on the back side of reading Your Face Tomorrow. I like coming to an author like this: not much knowledge about him or her beforehand, but a large accomplished backlist to lose yourself in!

  5. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the links, DK! Interesting points of criticism despite your overall enjoyment of the books.

  6. Trevor says:

    Click here for a superb interview with Margaret Jull Costa from Bookslut. In it she speaks of close sentence-level reading and the great translation of Madame Bovary by Margaret Mauldon, which I reviewed here.

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