It’s been a couple of years since I started reading this trilogy. Though I enjoyed every bit of it, for whatever reason — no, I know the reason: the third volume is huge! — I put off reading the end. The unfortunate result is that I have also been putting off reading other books by Marías that I have been looking forward to. I just couldn’t bring myself to read them when I hadn’t finished this massive work. But now I have, and I can move on, though my suspicion is that someday I’ll return here again. These are impressive books that, no matter how intimidating they may seem and no matter how dense and circular, are surprisingly quick reads.
This is how this trilogy begins: “One should never tell anyone anything.” Over 1,000 pages later, it ends with Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell (Tu rostro mañana, 3 Veneno y sombra y adiós , 2007; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, 2010). Obviously, there’s a lot this narrator has to say, and he has many many different ways to say it. This final volume is a wonderful culmination of the themes of language and power (my review of volume one here; of volume two here).
This review will not reveal any significant spoilers about this book or the prior ones, but I do want to bring up one of the central events in book two, Dance and Dream. In that book, Jaime Deza, our narrator, spends a substantial amount of time telling us, from every angle imaginable, about the night he and his boss were entertaining a foreign dignitary and his wife at a dance club. Deza and Tupra, remember, are employees of a secret agency that has as its inception the great wars of the twentieth century. It may have even once been an official government agency, but it is now private; Tupra doesn’t really know who sits at the top of the agency, yet he uses his incredible skills of deduction and induction to interpret people — people like foreign businessmen or politicians — for their clients.
As the night progressed at the dance club, a cocky man dances a bit too, uhm, harshly with the foreign dignitary’s wife. The man is a creep with a ponytail, and Deza doesn’t hesitate when Tupra tells him to get the man into the handicapped bathroom. When they three of them get to the bathroom, Deza is surprised and disgusted when Tupra wields a sword and threatens to decapitate the man. For dozens of pages Deza narrates the frightening moment when it looks like Tupra is going to kill the man (it doesn’t — or didn’t to me — get boring). As it turns out, Tupra doesn’t kill the man, though they leave the man badly injured. Deza leaves the club disgusted and tells his boss as much. This third volume picks up about there. Tupra tells Deza to come to his home; he wants to show him something and defend himself:
You criticize me for some trifling, unimportant thing that I did, but you live in a tiny world that barely exists, sheltered from the violence that has always been the norm and still is in most parts of the world, it’s like mistaking the interlude for the whole performance, you haven’t a clue, you people who never step outside of your own time or travel beyond countries like ours in which, up until the day before yesterday, violence also ruled. What I did was nothing. The lesser of two evils. And it was your fault.
What Tupra shows Deza leaves him even more shocked than the episode at the night club. I suppose it would be possible to criticize this angle in the book as something a bit trite or moralizing, but it doesn’t come off that way. We may get a glimpse at the horrors otherwise decent people do to maintain their power, but this books really delves into the different ways someone can manipulate others — or himself — with language. For example, here is how Deza responds after he sees what Tupra has to show him:
[. . .] the images slipped inside me like a foreign body that caused me immediate pain and a sense of oppression 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 the imagination or a misunderstanding or a mirage or a hallucination or a malicious misinterpretation [. . . ]
Deza has never been entirely comfortable with this job. Really, he took it because two of the people he most respects in the world, Toby Rylands and Peter Wheeler, were a part of it their whole lives; in fact, for all Deza knows, Rylands and Wheeler started the whole thing. Still, these revelations with Tupra lead Deza to repulsion. When he really starts looking into the evil the program is trying to grapple with, it is a poison entering into him.
To me, all of this was fascinating, but then Marías takes the book to an entirely different level. In my prior reviews of this trilogy I mentioned the fact that some of my favorite passages dealt with Deza’s estranged wife. She is hardly a character in the first two volumes, though her impact on Deza is felt all over the place. This is her volume, and all of the themes come together in a very personal way as Deza struggles to fight what he now knows he’s capable of while he saves her from an abusive relationship that she may, in fact, be welcoming. I loved it.