Let me cut to the chase—something Javier Marías rarely does during the course of this 1300-page
novel in three volumes. Here’s the bottom line: This is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last
decade, the smartest, most moving, most stimulating. But it’s not a novel for the faint-hearted or
those who seek pleasing escapism from stories that operate, as so many do nowadays, as Freudian
wish-fulfillments or prepackaged moral lessons or theme-park-style thrill rides. Your Face Tomorrow
is not that kind of book.
But if you are a reader who, like me, feels that
novels have been corrupted by cinema, TV and
video, that narratives in the current day too
often dwell on surface images rather than the
riches and complexities of the inner life, the
domain which fiction is best suited to address,
then you should make the acquaintance of
Javier Marías. He is a kindred soul, and a
fearless one. He isn’t afraid of dissecting
psychological nuances with the precision of
Henry James, of probing existential depths
with the courage of Fyodor Dostoevsky, or
constructing long, lapidary sentences as
ambitious as those of Marcel Proust. None
of those approaches are fashionable in the
new millennium, and that, I dare say, is simply
one more reason why you should read Your
Marías, however, is sly and knows how to lure you into his story, even as it deviates from the tricks of
the popular fiction trade. He even gives his existential story the trappings of an espionage novel, with
spies and counterspies, adventures and betrayals, crimes and secrets. When the final volume of
Your Face Tomorrow appeared in English in 2009, the New York Times likened it to a John le Carré
thriller, and that’s not an inapt comparison. But that reference tells you much about the moral
dimension of Marías’s approach. Le Carré’s spies stands out from their peers not so much for their
wiles and intrigues but for their corrupted, quasi-Nietzschean worldviews that blur the line between
good and evil, heroism and nihilistic power politics. The same is true, but even more markedly, with
the secret agents who serve their even-more-secret masters in the world of Javier Marías.
Another spy novelist appears in the pages of Your Face Tomorrow, namely Ian Fleming, the creator
of James Bond. Our narrator Jacques Deza, a Spanish intellectual living in England, is surprised to
find Fleming’s personal inscription in a book owned by his friend Sir Peter Wheeler, an aging Oxford
professor. In a first edition copy of From Russia With Love, discovered by chance on the professor’s
bookshelf, is written: "To Peter Wheeler, who may know better. Salud! From Ian Fleming 1957." Deza finds
other signed books from Fleming on the shelf, and is puzzled that his friend never told
him that he knew the famous spy novelist.
Is Wheeler hiding his own secret history as a spy? He
now seems little more than a retired academic, but
looks are deceiving. More to the point, he sees special
talents in our narrator Deza, and enlists him to join a
secret espionage unit that works in a "building with no
name" in London. In fact, even the organization itself
lacks a name—or if it has one, employees haven’t been
told. By the same token, they are left in the dark about
who they are serving.
Deza is hired because of his special ability to observe
people and analyze their characters and propensities
on the basis of tiny details others might miss. (There's
an unstated irony that permeates these pages: The
qualities that are supposedly crucial in espionage are
actually those more often possessed by novelists than
actual spies—in particular, an ability to connect personality
with emblematic traits, possessions, gestures, phrases,
and quirks.) Deza’s skill is all the more valuable because, as Wheeler laments, so few people in the
current day are able to see what’s staring them in the face, let alone anticipate how people might
behave tomorrow or the day after. Because of his gifts, Deza can serve the agency as an interpreter
of people, a predictor of lives, an anticipator of an individual’s face tomorrow.
Here’s the passage in which the spy recruiter explains to Deza why such abilities are so rare—and
marvel how Marías simultaneously builds his espionage story, demonstrates his own skill at
interpreting people, offers philosophical insights and provides a trenchant critique of contemporary
"The times have made people insipid, finicky, prudish. No one wants to see anything of what there is
to see, they don’t even dare to look, still less take the risk of making a wager; being forewarned,
foreseeing, judging, or heaven forbid, prejudging, that’s a capital offence, it smacks of lèse-humanité,
an attack on the dignity of the prejudged, of the prejudger, of everyone. No one dares any more to
say or to acknowledge that they see what they see, what is quite simply there, perhaps unspoken or
almost unsaid, but nevertheless there. No one wants to know; and the idea of knowing something
beforehand, well, it simply fills people with horror, with a kind of biographical, moral horror. They
require proof and verification of everything; the benefit of the doubt, as they call it, has invaded
everything, leaving not a single sphere uncolonised, and it has ended up paralyzing us, making us,
formally speaking, impartial, scrupulous and ingenuous, but in practice, making fools of us all, utter
necios . . . Necios in the strict sense of the word, in the Latin sense of necius, one who knows
nothing, who lacks knowledge, or as the dictionary of the Real Academia Española puts it . . .
“Ignorant and knowing neither what could or should be known.” Isn't that extraordinary? That is, a
person who deliberately and willingly chooses not to know, a person who shies away from finding
things out and who abhors learning."
And here’s another passage, perhaps even more insightful, almost a kind of touchstone for grasping
"The present era is so proud that it has produced a phenomenon which I imagine to be
unprecedented: the present’s resentment of the past, resentment because the past had the audacity
to happen without us being there, without our cautious opinion and our hesitant consent, and even
worse, without our gaining any advantage from it. Most extraordinary of all is that this resentment has
nothing to do, apparently, with feelings of envy for past splendors that vanished without including us,
or feelings of distaste for an excellence of which we were aware, but to which we did not contribute,
one that we missed and failed to experience, that scorned us and which we did not ourselves
witness, because the arrogance of our times has reached such proportions that it cannot admit the
idea, not even the shadow or mist or breath of an idea, that things were better before. No, it’s just
pure resentment for anything that presumed to happen beyond our boundaries and owed no debt to
us, for anything that is over and has, therefore, escaped us."
Perhaps you are unmoved by such passages, or—maybe even more likely—resent them the way
Marías’s necios resent the past. For my part, I am dazzled by an author who can employ this kind of
hermeneutic thinking to advance a plot about master spies embattled in international intrigue.
Whatever your response, you are unlikely to encounter another book quite like this one.
Deza joins the secret agency, and soon makes a contribution with his abilities. But a contribution to
what? The level of secrecy is such that he can never be quite sure who he is helping, who he might be
hurting. He can’t figure out whether he is working for “the navy, the army, such-and-such a ministry or
one of the embassies, or Scotland Yard or the judiciary or Parliament, or, I don't know, the Bank of
England or even Buckingham Palace.” He eventually learns that, in a zeal for outsourcing, his work
might even be helping private individuals with deep pockets, and maybe they have criminal interests
or—it can’t be rule out—even foreign governments antagonistical to his own. And what is his own
country? Is it Spain, where Deza was born? Or Britain where he now works? Or should his allegiance
be simply to himself and his personal interest?
This ambiguity is troubling, but becomes more so as his job starts to result in acts of violence. Deza
prides himself on his moral compass, strengthened by the lessons taught by his father who survived,
barely, the betrayals and bloodshed caused by the Spanish Civil War. Yet the son who once thought
that he instinctively did the right thing, now learns that he is capable of the same kinds of
irresponsible actions that caused so much tragedy for his family and forebears.
This is a deeply moral novel. I tell you that with trepidation, because I know how such books are
viewed by many readers, who have been inundated with moralizing stories. There’s a difference, a
rather sharp one. This book doesn't give you predigested lessons aimed to manipulate your
behavior. If you want that, there are plenty of other stories out there to deliver it. Marías's trilogy is a
moral work in the best possible way, namely because it forces you consider your own decisions and
indecisions. Even better, it prods you to think what your own face might reveal tomorrow, what you
might be capable of doing, to your later regret, when placed in a situation where ends seemingly
justify means and conformity to the group agenda is imposed with strict discipline.
Reading this book, I’m reminded of a talk I gave once to a group of medical school students who
were interested in the humanities. I was asked what benefit a future doctor or other professional
might get from reading literature. I told the students the following: “At some point in your career, you
will almost certainly be asked to do something unethical. I have even worse news for you: the person
asking you to do this will probably be your boss. And here’s the worst news of all: When this
happens, you will probably have no more than 30 seconds to make a decision.” We read literature, at
least in part, to learn from the experiences of others and, in a pinch, to make better decisions when
put in such difficult situations.
I hadn’t read Javier Marías when I gave that talk, but I probably would have cited this work specifically
if I had known of it at the time. I will look for other occasions in the future to tell people to read it. For a
start, I’m taking the opportunity to do so right now.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).
Publication Date: October 5, 2017
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Javier Marías's Epic 1300-Page Novel of Existential Espionage
Essay by Ted Gioia