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Suspense and Suspension

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Wendy Lesser

This past week I've been reading Javier Marías's Your Face Tomorrow: Dance and Dream, the second volume in his projected trilogy, which New Directions, his regular American publishers, are bringing out in this country. If you've never read any Javier Marías, this is probably not the place to start. (For that, I would recommend A Heart So White or perhaps All Souls — both excellent, both still in print from ND and therefore readily available from your local good bookstore, if such a thing still exists in your neighborhood.) But Your Face Tomorrow is shaping up to be one of the great fictional achievements of the century, so sooner or later you too, if you have not already done so, will want to climb aboard this slowly moving, heavily laden bandwagon.

The first volume, subtitled Fever and Spear, left us with a proverbial cliffhanger, as we waited for the narrator and protagonist, Jacques Deza (also known as Jack or Jaime or Jacobo or, very occasionally, Iago), to answer the door on a rainy night in London. How Deza got to London from his native Spain, and what exactly he is doing there, I leave it up to you to find out. Suffice to say that he is separated from his wife, Luisa (all wives in Marías fictions are called Luisa), about whom he thinks often and fondly; and he is working at least temporarily for some kind of shady agency that requires him to "interpret" people — not from one language to another, though he does that too, but to interpret their very character, their motives, their possibilities, frequently on the basis of a single short meeting. This agency, which is run by a rather monstrous but also fascinating man named Tupra (also known as Reresby, or Ure, or Dundas, depending on the circumstances), seems to have deep connections both with private corporations of the most dangerous type and with secret governmental departments like MI5 and MI6.

That sounds thrilling, I know, and Your Face Tomorrow is indeed thrilling, but not necessarily in the way you are expecting it to be. Very little happens; much gets pondered, or remembered, or reconsidered; and by far the most attractive and compelling aspect of the work lies in the distinctive thought processes of its narrator. Once you have been drawn into Deza's complicated, digressive, and richly allusive way of thinking about the world, you will barely be able to tear yourself away.

This is even more true of Dance and Dream than it was of Fever and Spear — perhaps because the shape of the whole project is clearer now, perhaps because Deza himself has become more familiar to us over time, or perhaps because the proportion of event to reflection has increased ever so slightly, to the point where the balance between the two is now perfect. The feeling that infuses Dance and Dream is a strange mixture of suspense and suspension. You will be desperate to move forward, to find out where it is all leading, but at the same time you are likely to feel endlessly engrossed in the present sentence or the particular page (often the same thing, since Marías's sentences tend to go on at Proustian length).

If you have read other Marías works, including the anti-novel Dark Back of Time as well as the more straightforward fictions (but I use the word "more" advisedly, since nothing by Marías is absolutely straightforward), some of the material in this new book will be familiar to you, and it will seem to be resurfacing in much the same way your own recent dreams and distant memories do. This will be true even if you have only read Fever and Spear, which came out in America last year, and which puzzled many longtime Marías fans. We lacked the experience, at that point, to understand where he was taking this book. But now the book itself has become our experience, holding us aloft in its own watery element, preventing us from drowning in its sea of new ideas and observations, "suspending" us in yet another sense.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Dance and Dream is hilariously funny in places. This is especially true of the moment — a very extended moment, lasting scores if not hundreds of pages — when Deza encounters a compatriot of his, one Rafita De la Garza, in a loud, expensive disco in London. De la Garza, whom we have already met and despised in Fever and Spear, is some kind of diplomat, a minor attaché, not to mention an idiot, a buffoon, a moron, a "dickhead," a crude, obnoxious fellow to whom all women are merely "a bit of pussy" or something worse. He is dressed, when our narrator meets him at the disco, as some kind of cross between a black rapper and an escapee from a Goya painting, complete with an oversized earring and a ridiculously empty hairnet, or "snood," as he calls it when speaking of it to Deza. (The translation, by the brilliant Margaret Jull Costa, is superb throughout, careening as it does from the demotic to the archaic with barely a pause for breath.) The pace of the narrative invariably picks up when De la Garza appears, if only because the level of vitriol that Deza feels toward him is so high. Reading these passages is like encountering the hateful characters in Jane Austen or the objects of Lucky Jim's scorn — always the best part of a certain sort of serious English comic novel. And for a while we imagine, happily, that we are occupying just that sort of novel, until suddenly (or at least it feels sudden, but really it takes dozens of pages of preparation) we are frighteningly plunged into the kind of brutality that characterized, say, the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. The analogy is not mine: Marías makes it explicit by drawing in the recollections of Deza's beloved, humane father, interleaving terrifying stories from Spain's twentieth-century history with the much later incidents set in England. By the time De la Garza has both suffered and escaped horrific violence, we are so morally exhausted, and at the same time so literarily satisfied, that we are almost relieved to have the volume end in another gentle cliffhanger.

Comparisons between Your Face Tomorrow and Proust's multi-part masterpiece have already been made by several critics, and they are not amiss. But what is remarkable about the two volumes that are already out — and particularly Dance and Dream, which has fewer obligations to scene-setting and therefore more chance to venture forth in all directions — is the way the author combines the coarse materials of our contemporary, fallen, corrupt existence with the highest literary techniques of the past. This is first-class literature that includes among its subjects the Botox-infused face of a well-known movie star, the look of a bathroom designed for the handicapped, the thrashing dance style of a cocaine-addled dandy, and the sinister yet endearing qualities of aging Oxford dons. It is a book that derives from Ian Fleming as well as Shakespeare, from last night's television show as well as Spain's (not to mention the western world's) first novel. It is of our time and of no time in particular, and I am willing to bet that it will still be here when most of what is published this year has dissolved into dirt.

—July 11, 2006

Some possibly useful links:

The New Directions web page about Javier Marías.

Further information on the translation work of Margaret Jull Costa.

Javier Marías’s official Spanish website.

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