Javier Marias' hero is a diviner of futures who can't escape the past
Loquacity has always been a tricky river for novels to travel upon. Readers are likely to drown if the current is too frothy, as in, say, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. On the flip side, when the tide moves too slowly, as in, perhaps, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, we fall asleep on our raft.
Javier Marias gets things just about right in his ongoing Your Face Tomorrow series. Coasting downstream on his murmuring prose is just about the most delightful high-minded activity one might find this summer for under $25. If John Le Carre knew how to take a siesta, he might write like this.
This set-up is rife with noir undertones, which Marias plays up with deft touches. For instance, Deza rarely knows the name or nature of the person whose conversation he overhears, and yet, he is supposed to invent entire future lives for them. All of Deza's activities involve empathy - leaps of faith that mirror narrative and love, compacts he has recently foresworn. As it turns out, he is very good at it - too good, in fact. Later in the novel he stumbles upon a file his boss has begun keeping on him, in which he is labeled "dangerous."
The same could be said for the experiment Marias is trying to pull off. With the bravado of a matador, Marias has whipped out a tale about a storyteller who is also the ultimate spy. In Spain, Marias is a celebrity and a national treasure, the kind of writer who, if he took a break from writing, might cause publishing stocks to fall. He has translated writers such as William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad into Spanish, so it's no surprise that language itself has been an interest of his from the beginning. There's something a little cheeky about his use of a translator-spy here, though. It feels obvious and perhaps a little indulgent, an inside joke likely to make readers on these shores feel slightly out of the loop.
| Your Face Tomorrow: |
Fever and Spear
By Javier Marias
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
$24.95, 387 pages
In the end, as with all of Marias' novels, language is the star character. Like Proust and W.G. Sebald, Marias' prose is digressive and long-winded; we finish the sentences breathless, gasping for a chance to empty our short-term memory. By the time a period arrives, the key clause is buried five or six lines deep - the effort we make to retrieve it mimics, in essence, the activity of the narrator as he reaches backward in time.
Time, memory, the persistence of the past due to our preoccupation with heritage: Marias circles these themes using the rudder of conversation between Deza and his mentor, Sir Peter Wheeler. Over the course of the novel, they take turns making confessions through a haze of cigar smoke. Among Wheeler's: He was a spy during the Spanish Civil War. Among Deza's: His father was a journalist on the Republican side who defected to Franco.
Although the present-tense machinations keep us reading, those long-ago betrayals have a way of bubbling up from even the more placid sections of Marias' prose. The river we travel on isn't just language, but the past. In Your Face Tomorrow, Marias has given us a hero and a book that cares deeply about both. Most readers probably won't need the cliff-hanger ending to sign up for whatever comes up next. •