YOUR FACE TOMORROW: VOLUME THREE by Javier Marías
A review of

Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Three

by Javier Marías

Central question: To what extent are we responsible for what we say and hear?
Obligatory plot summary: A hyperanalytical Spaniard divines the future actions of various personages and regrets his estranged wife; Partial list of writers referenced: Federico García Lorca, Jane Austen, Laurence Sterne, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Shakespeare, Ian Fleming; Representative sentence: “I, for example, never trust men who wear those rather monk-like sandals, I figure they’re all impostors and traitors; or anyone in Bermuda shorts or clamdiggers (men, I mean), which nowadays means that in summer I trust no one, especially in Spain, that paradise of shameless ignominious get-ups.”

At last, after three years of suspense, we are given the conclusion to Spanish novelist Javier Marías’s ambitious and sublimely executed three-part spy novel Your Face Tomorrow. The first installment, Fever and Spear, introduces the curious situation of the narrator, Jacques Deza. Estranged from his wife, Luisa, and their children in Madrid, Deza is recruited for his extraordinary powers of perception into a mysterious branch of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service to be an “interpreter of lives,” an agent who creates elaborate character sketches of his assigned subjects. The second book, Dance and Dream, constructed around one bizarre night in a London nightclub, reveals the darker side of Deza’s boss and the nameless organization for which he works. In Poison, Shadow and Farewell, the narrator himself comes into sharper focus, as he returns to Madrid to surveil his family and eventually takes ruthless action to defend it.

Like most of Marías’s works, Your Face Tomorrow deals with the process of discovery and the burden of knowing. It explores the transactional nature of conversation, which creates creditors, debtors, and embroilment as characters provide each other with information both wanted and unwanted. “Telling is almost always done as a gift, even when the story contains and injects some poison,” Marías writes in Fever and Spear. To underscore this point, he strews reproductions of early twentieth-century “careless talk” campaign posters throughout the trilogy.

The title of the trilogy, taken from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, refers to the future, unknowable faces of those who surround us and may one day betray us. When Luisa’s lover, Custardoy, suggests previously unrevealed facets of Luisa’s personality, Deza is profoundly unsettled:

It’s dreadful to be told anything, anything at all, it’s dreadful to have ideas put in your head, however unlikely or ridiculous and however unsustainable and improbable (because everything has its time to be believed)… it’s understandable really that people should hate knowledge and deny what is there before their eyes and prefer to know nothing and repudiate the facts, that they should avoid the inoculation and the poison and push it away as soon as they see or feel it near, it’s best not to take risks; it’s understandable, too, that we almost all ignore what we see and divine and anticipate and smell, and that we toss into the bag of imaginings anything that we see clearly—for however short a time—before it can take root in our mind and leave it forever troubled, and so it’s hardly strange that we should be reluctant to know anyone’s face today, tomorrow or yesterday.

In All Souls (sort of The Hobbit to Your Face Tomorrow’s Ring Trilogy), Marías writes of Oxford as “a city preserved in syrup.” A similar thing could be said of Marías’s pickled prose–style, with its long, sinuous sentences and manifold digressions that can try even the most patient and trusting reader. But like Deza, who never loses sight of his prey, Marías never drops his narrative thread. Rather, he masterfully weaves together subplots involving the (somewhat fictionalized) stories of his father, the philosopher Julián Marías, and his friend Sir Peter Russell, a former MI6 agent and Oxford professor, lending these real-life relationships to his protagonist. Set against the tumultuous backdrops of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, these gorgeously rendered subnarratives almost overshadow Marías’s main narrative, but they also make it his most moving and personal work to date.

—Megan Doll

Megan Doll is a writer in New York. She writes regularly about literature in translation.

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