x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Written lives

Books In the final instalment of an ambitious trilogy of novels, David Haglund writes, the Spanish writer Javier Marías continues to mine his fascination with the myriad means and ends of storytelling.

In the final instalment of an ambitious trilogy of novels, David Haglund writes, the Spanish writer Javier Marías continues to mine his fascination with the myriad means and ends of storytelling. Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow and Farewell Javier Marías Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa Chatto & Windus Dh116 Your Face Tomorrow, the enormously ambitious novel in three volumes by the Spanish writer Javier Marías, began seven years ago with a warning: "One should never tell anyone anything." Not that Marías or his narrator, Jaime Deza, believes this advice - both go on to violate it for nearly 1,300 pages. But that opening remark haunts all that follows. Like so much fiction by Marías, Your Face Tomorrow returns again and again to the moral complications of storytelling: the hidden motives behind the stories we tell; the inevitable inaccuracies of language; the way that just listening to a story can implicate us in what it recounts. As the narrator of another Marias novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, says: "the only safe option would be never to say or do anything".

Deza first appeared as the unnamed narrator of All Souls, an earlier Marías novel set in Oxford. There he, like Marías himself, spent two years as a lecturer in Spanish literature. At the beginning of Your Face Tomorrow, we learn that he has separated from Luisa, the woman he married after his time in Oxford, and moved to London, where he works at the BBC "on various tedious programmes about terrorism and tourism". At a party in Oxford he is introduced to Bertram Tupra, a shady figure who invites Deza to work for him, first interpreting Spanish, then "interpreting lives" - watching people on video and in person and deducing their dispositions, anticipating their likely behavior in a variety of situations. Tupra, it turns out, runs a small, nameless group within MI6, the external intelligence agency of the United Kingdom.

In the novel's first volume, Fever and Spear, we meet the principal characters and witness Deza's early work for Tupra. One of Deza's first assignments is to speculate on the character of a man who is planning a coup in Venezuela. Could he, if it came to that, actually kill Hugo Chávez? Deza decides that he could not: he seems to admire Chávez too much. Later, Deza sees in the news that a Venezuelan coup has indeed been attempted, and ended "a grotesque failure". For the first time, he lingers, albeit briefly, over the consequences of his "interpretations." Did the British government withhold its assistance from the leaders of the coup because of his advice? Did he contribute to its failure?

In volume two, Dance and Dream (published in Spain in 2004), Deza progresses - or devolves, perhaps - from interpreter to accomplice. At a dance club, he helps lure a buffoon named De la Garza - who has upset a client of Tupra's - into the bathroom with the promise of cocaine. Once all three men are in a stall, Tupra starts to viciously beat De la Garza, brandishing, of all improbable things, a sword. The bizarre and horrific beating lasts barely 10 minutes, but Marías brilliantly stretches it out over 150 pages. Each swing of the sword (there are only a few) prompts wandering meditations on the nature of fear; the inherently metaphorical quality of language; and conversations the narrator has had with his father about the Spanish Civil War.

These long, ruminative digressions consist largely of what Marías has called pensamiento literario, or "literary thinking", a kind of lyrical philosophising full of long sentences and keen insights that constitutes one of the great pleasures of his fiction. For instance: "Sometimes we know what we want to do or have to do or even what we're thinking of doing or are almost certain we will do, but we also need it to be spoken about or confirmed or discussed or approved, a maneuver which is, after a fashion, a way of shuffling off a little of the responsibility, of diffusing or sharing it, even if only fictitiously, because what we do we do alone, regardless of who convinces or persuades or encourages or gives us the green light, or even orders or commissions the deed."

Such passages often appear while the reader is waiting for some shoe (or sword) to drop. By interrupting the action, Marías not only fuels the reader's anticipation, but also makes a point about storytelling - which, for him, can never be reduced to the mere recounting of events. Stories have purposes, sometimes dubious ones, and consequences that are never entirely foreseeable. Marías and his narrators are at constant pains to acknowledge this: they add caveats and warnings ("never forget the always implicit and threatened repetition... of whatever we say"); they reveal their own motives as best they can ("telling and retelling is... the coin that buys social relations and favours and trust and even friendships and, of course, sex"); they wonder about the effects their stories will have ("it is the story," Deza says, "which, however imprecise, treacherous, approximate and downright useless, is nevertheless almost the only thing that counts").

The novel's final instalment, Poison, Shadow and Farewell, released last week, begins immediately after De la Garza's bathroom beating. Deza is shaken, and Tupra - who, for professional reasons, wants to resolve Deza's moral qualms - insists that they go to his flat and watch a DVD. What he shows Deza is a compilation of top-secret footage kept by MI6 in case any of the material becomes useful. Some of the clips are "innocuous" images of well-known people "caught performing perfectly normal sexual acts". Others are more disturbing. One shows what appear to be American soldiers repeatedly hanging a hooded, shackled man, releasing him just in time to forestall his death. Dimly visible in the background is an American politician who "had repeatedly and publicly denied having anything to do with such things". (His "unmistakable glasses" and "look of some German doctor" call to mind both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; Marías does not provide a name.)

For Tupra, it seems, the DVD demonstrates that all is permissible in our fallen, degenerate world. He shows it to Deza in order to steel his charge for the tasks he may be called upon to undertake. Before he plays the DVD, he asks Deza why it's wrong to kill someone; Deza cannot give a convincing answer. The viewing session appears to have its intended effect of convincing him there isn't one. Watching the hooded man repeatedly hang, Deza begins to feel infected by the evil and violence that he has witnessed - and perhaps abetted. Whatever pretentions to innocence or righteousness he may have had disappear, and whatever moral compass he possessed seems to vanish along with them.

Perhaps to regain his footing, Deza returns to Madrid for a two-week vacation. There he learns that his wife has a new and possibly abusive boyfriend named Custardoy. Should he intervene, without certain knowledge or clear jurisdiction? Faced with an ethically difficult situation, he reacts as Tupra might, aggressively and without concern for the law (though not before calling Tupra for advice). Having begun Your Face Tomorrow as an entangled observer, then become an accomplice, Deza at last decides to become a man of forceful, unilateral action, a vigilante for whom the ends justify the means. This decision, and the alternately comical and frightening way in which Deza sees it through, comprise much of the action of this final volume.

When not tracking down and terrorising Custardoy, Deza visits his ageing father, Juan, and presses him one last time for stories of the Civil War. In true Marías style, the most devastating of these stories is not about anything Juan did or saw, but about a story he himself was told by a man who, after the war, achieved considerable renown as a writer. Over lunch one day, the man recounted, "almost proudly", a gruesome act of torture in which he had participated. Like his son, Juan is privy to the horrible, unpunished deeds of the well-known, and has long been disturbed by what he knows. The comparison is not flattering to the narrator: Juan did not watch the deeds on a DVD, but heard of them over lunch - and as a private citizen, not a cog in the machinery of a surveillance state.

This unflattering contrast with the past becomes more stark when Deza flies back to London and learns that a famous singer whom he "interpreted" for Tupra in Fever and Spear has committed murder in precisely the fashion Deza predicted he might. As he comes to terms with the true purposes of his "interpretations", Deza turns again to conversations with an older man. This time it is Peter Wheeler, the Oxford mentor who first introduced him to Tupra. Wheeler worked for British intelligence for decades, attempting to engineer assasinations of Nazi leaders; Deza beats up idiots in bathrooms and assists in the entrapment of pop stars. The tragedy of his father and Wheeler's generation has become the farce of his own.

Marías has long been a regular columnist for El País, the largest Spanish newspaper, writing on various topics and voicing, as he puts it, "my opinion as a citizen". His fiction occupies, in his opinion, another sphere: the "difference between my generation of writers and the previous one", he has said, is "that we made a distinction between our writing and our duties as citizens". But he has also said, on the same subject: "I try to be coherent in what I do." With its examination of subterfuge and surveillance and its frequent comparisons of earlier times with our own (at one point, Juan Deza suggests a Francoist lineage for the "unnecessary, selfish wars" of today), Your Face Tomorrow brings together, more than any of his earlier books, Marías's engagement with literary forms and with the wider world.

The biographies of both Juan Deza and Peter Wheeler are drawn from life: the former is inspired by the novelist's own father - Julián Marías, a well-known philosopher and writer who was briefly imprisoned after the Civil War and barred for many years from teaching in Spain - and the latter by Sir Peter Russell, an esteemed Hispanist whom Marías came to know at Oxford, and whose feats on behalf of British intelligence were perhaps as numerous as his academic accomplishments. In Your Face Tomorrow, Marías wrestles with the same questions - of power and politics, the individual and the state, anecdote and espionage - as these men who came before him. Which is not to say that the novel has any crudely political aims. Those writers in the previous generation from which Marías distinguishes himself, who "thought that writing engagé books was going to help bring down the dictatorship", were, in that respect, according to Marías, "very naïve". In his fiction, Marías does not make arguments about the way things should be, but he does think through the way things are and have been.

Early on in Your Face Tomorrow, Deza seems to express Marías's own ideas concerning the relationship between fiction and "real life": the latter, he says, "bears a closer relation to films and literature than is normally recognized and believed": "It isn't, as people say, that the former imitates the latter or the latter the former, but that our infinite imaginings belong to life too and help make it broader and more complex, make it murkier and, at the same time, more acceptable, although not more explicable (or only very rarely)." Marías's own seemingly infinite imaginings broaden and complicate the novel form - mixing fact and fiction, illuminating the undersides of the past and its characters. In doing so, they accomplish what Marías himself has said all literature must: like a match lit in a field, they "let us see how much darkness there is".

David Haglund is the manageing editor of the literary magazine PEN America.