Arts Tomorrow's yesterday

Javier Marias' hero is a diviner of futures who can't escape the past

Loquacity has always been a tricky river for novels to travel upon. Readers are likely to drown if the current is too frothy, as in, say, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. On the flip side, when the tide moves too slowly, as in, perhaps, Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, we fall asleep on our raft.

Javier Marias gets things just about right in his ongoing Your Face Tomorrow series. Coasting downstream on his murmuring prose is just about the most delightful high-minded activity one might find this summer for under $25. If John Le Carre knew how to take a siesta, he might write like this.

The hero of these novels is Jaime Deza, a Spanish teacher and translator from Madrid who has moved to London to lie low after an agonizing divorce. For diversion, he graduates from academic work to being a "translator of lives." On most days, Deza sits behind a two-way mirror at an office of Britain's MI5 spy agency and attempts to see "what individuals, independent of their circumstances, would be capable of," to divine "what face they would wear tomorrow." Thus, Deza begins observing and judging everyone from pop stars to South American generals, from the Queen's secret service to businessmen of indeterminate import.

This set-up is rife with noir undertones, which Marias plays up with deft touches. For instance, Deza rarely knows the name or nature of the person whose conversation he overhears, and yet, he is supposed to invent entire future lives for them. All of Deza's activities involve empathy - leaps of faith that mirror narrative and love, compacts he has recently foresworn. As it turns out, he is very good at it - too good, in fact. Later in the novel he stumbles upon a file his boss has begun keeping on him, in which he is labeled "dangerous."

The same could be said for the experiment Marias is trying to pull off. With the bravado of a matador, Marias has whipped out a tale about a storyteller who is also the ultimate spy. In Spain, Marias is a celebrity and a national treasure, the kind of writer who, if he took a break from writing, might cause publishing stocks to fall. He has translated writers such as William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad into Spanish, so it's no surprise that language itself has been an interest of his from the beginning. There's something a little cheeky about his use of a translator-spy here, though. It feels obvious and perhaps a little indulgent, an inside joke likely to make readers on these shores feel slightly out of the loop.

Your Face Tomorrow:
Fever and Spear

By Javier Marias
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Directions
$24.95, 387 pages
ISBN: 0811216128
But the confusion of fact and fiction in his hero gives a textured intimacy to Marias' point of view. It allows Deza to meander seamlessly from details of daily life to meditations on his past without Marias worrying about the typical accoutrements of fictional characterizations. At times, it doesn't even matter if we think it's Marias or Deza who is speaking.

In the end, as with all of Marias' novels, language is the star character. Like Proust and W.G. Sebald, Marias' prose is digressive and long-winded; we finish the sentences breathless, gasping for a chance to empty our short-term memory. By the time a period arrives, the key clause is buried five or six lines deep - the effort we make to retrieve it mimics, in essence, the activity of the narrator as he reaches backward in time.

Time, memory, the persistence of the past due to our preoccupation with heritage: Marias circles these themes using the rudder of conversation between Deza and his mentor, Sir Peter Wheeler. Over the course of the novel, they take turns making confessions through a haze of cigar smoke. Among Wheeler's: He was a spy during the Spanish Civil War. Among Deza's: His father was a journalist on the Republican side who defected to Franco.

Although the present-tense machinations keep us reading, those long-ago betrayals have a way of bubbling up from even the more placid sections of Marias' prose. The river we travel on isn't just language, but the past. In Your Face Tomorrow, Marias has given us a hero and a book that cares deeply about both. Most readers probably won't need the cliff-hanger ending to sign up for whatever comes up next.


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