El Pais 2006; courtesy of New Directions.
For voracious readers the most satisfying battles are always heralded by the challenge of big books. Let’s call them gigabooks, books that can break their own spine or their readers, books where you lightly taste their first sentence, equally ready to experience sugar or poison. Enter Spanish novelist Javier Marías and his completed 1,200 page trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow (New Directions Publishing), which has just been translated into English.
It was the titles of Javier Marías’ novels that first interested me, cribbed from Shakespeare’s plays (“Your Face Tomorrow” is from Henry IV Part II). They are the reader’s first clues that a work by Marias is a novel that is steeped in literature as a whole—his novels give the feeling that they grow out of other novels. A look at Marías’ column in The Believer magazine or his book of essays, Written Lives(2006), point to his love of examining the country of Literature like a scientist looking at lichens. Marías’ entwining of fiction and the world can be seen to the extreme in his novel The Dark Back of Time where he relates the tale of how he was bequeathed the title King of Redonda—a real place, and a real title—but that can neither be confirmed or denied by Marías or the country’s other current king in a kind of meta half nelson.
The series Your Face Tomorrow is narrated by Jacques Deza, an academic from Spain who works in England. An outsider to himself and his country, Deza is hired by a British intelligence agency as a unique kind of interpreter: he possesses the uncanny ability to intuit how people will behave in the future. The possibility of deception being so close to every character’s heart in a book that details the lives of spies, Deza’s gift puts him in demand. Marías has portioned each of the three volumes of his novel to contain one large superb act of violence, individually savored over many pages in his hyper-digressive style of turning over each detail and set piece of the perpetrated act.
Finally, in the last volume, it is Deza himself who commits the act in a brutal apotheosis. Marías sets his character up with the ultimate avenger’s candy: Deza’s wife turns up with a black eye that leads to a local gigolo, and the lynchpin that held back the black-water eddy in Deza’s soul is lifted. The fear and pain that Marías has built up for a thousand pages oozes out like oily fate.
Marías’ neatest trick is his use of digression as a means to stretch his world out like taffy. It goes all the way back to the start of his career as a translator of other works, notably Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy when he was just 24. Read or watch him be interviewed, and Sterne’s tidy piece of advice bubbles out of him again and again with certainty, “digress as you progress!” The master technique of digression spinning out thoughts and counter thoughts, assertions and questions—to keep the central incident to itself as long as possible—is what keeps these fat novels from skating across the ice instead of cracking it.