The publication of Your Face Tomorrow in three volumes seems, in retrospect, rather arbitrary; the seven sections, indicated by the sub-titles are more indicative of the structure. Each volume has contained one central act of violence and the third is no exception, the only difference being that, on this occasion, the violence is perpetrated by the central character and narrator, Jacques Deza. Deza (if you’re not acquainted with the previous volumes) is a Spaniard working in London for a “mysterious intelligence agency run by Bertram Tupra” (these were the words I was going to use, only to find them on the jacket…) that specialises in ‘reading’ people. The novel’s title (as with many of Marias’) comes from Shakespeare (Henry V), carrying with it connotations of betrayal, and of the difficulty of foreseeing what an individual will be like in the future. In this volume there is a strong sense that Deza himself has been unable to predict his own development.
Volume 2 ended with Tupra savagely attacking a man with a sword, threatening to kill him a number of times. This attack was witnessed by Deza and, at the beginning of this volume he is still discussing this with Tupra:
“I was sure that sooner or later he would ask me that question again: ‘Why can’t one do that? Why can’t one, according to you, go around beating people up and killing them?’ And I still had no answers that would convince him, I had to keep thinking about something we never think about because we take it as universally agreed, as immutable and normal and right.”
As throughout the series, the action is limited but the philosophising around the action is extensive. Marias writes in an extremely digressive style, reflected both in the lengthy conversations in the novel and in the first person narrative. Questions of morality abound, as when Deza sleeps with a young colleague shortly after she has asked him for a favour. Even the act itself is a form of deception:
“…she just let me, she didn’t participate, if one can say that or if that’s possible, at any rate, we didn’t speak, there was no indication on either side that what was happening was happening, how can I put it, we pretended to pretend to be asleep…”
The above extract (only a part of the sentence) gives a good indication of the style, the constant rephrasing in search of the most accurate expression of the idea.
The central incident in this volume, however, occurs when Deza returns home to Madrid to see his children and his wife, from whom he is separated. When he discovers that she is seeing someone else, and suspects that that person may have been violent towards her, he has to decide whether to take action or not. The implication is that his actions now may not be the same as before he met Tupra, particularly as he asks Tupra for advice:
“And you’re asking me what you should do? Or what is it you’re asking? What I would do in your place? Well, you know perfectly well by now, Jack, what I would do.”
Needless to say, a confrontation with the man in question occurs, and you might even argue that Deza changes in the course of that meeting:
“What face am I wearing now?…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.”
Marias, however, is not simply interested in the uses of fear and violence, but in the consequences. He does not end the novel with the aftermath of this event, but adds as a coda a wartime story from an old lecturer of Deza’s, Charles Wheeler. Wheeler tells him of his wife’s suicide, the result of a wartime betrayal she could not forgive herself for. His conclusion is that:
“…you can live with what has happened to you, with what you came here to talk to me about, because, unlike her, you find it hard to believe that you were responsible.”
In Marias’ work all moral concepts (in this case, guilt) become fluid – just as in war, a topic he frequently returns to throughout the sequence.
These three novels surely establish Marias as a major European writer. If you are at all interested in contemporary literature, you should make time for them.