Spanish literary phenomenon Javier Marias has come up with a spy novel that is more concerned with a theoretical investigation of truth, trust, and betrayal than with cloak and dagger spying.
“Your Face Tomorrow: Volume One, Fever and Spear” by Javier Marias. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. (New Directions)
By Deborah Porter
“Fever and Spear,” the first installment of acclaimed Spanish writer Javier Marias’ trilogy “Your Face Tomorrow,” bills itself as a combo of spy novel and metaphysical thriller. Certainly the subject of the book relates at least vaguely to spies and it delves into the metaphysical. But “Fever and Spear” is no formulaic thriller: at least it will try the patience of anyone reading it with the expectation of being kept on the edge of their seats. This is an entirely different sort of spy novel, concerned more with a theoretical investigation of truth, trust, and betrayal than with cloak and dagger spying.
The conjunction of suspense novel and philosophical investigation is typical of Marias, who specializes in an entertaining brand of postmodern playfulness. In his mid-50s, the author is a huge literary and popular success in Europe, where he has sold millions of copies of his books and won a number of major prizes for fiction, including the IMPAC Award for “A Heart So White.” Marius has yet to make a huge impact in America — time will tell if this espionage trilogy will do the trick, as tantalizing as this first volume is.
The narrator and protagonist, a Spaniard named Deza, whose first name is variously Jacques (his mother’s name for him), Jaime (his estranged wife’s preferred name), Jacobo (the moniker preferred by some friends), or Jack (preferred by some in England), lives in London following the separation from his wife in Madrid. He recounts how, at a party in Oxford, his host, the distinguished and aged Sir Peter Wheeler, introduced him to Tupra, a man who hires Deza to exercise his well-developed talent for sensing how honest or dishonest a person is. Observing people in person or on video, Deza “reads” people via their spoken or physical language. He has a deadly eye for how inflection, gesture, and facial expressions reveal what someone is trying to conceal.
The conversation between Deza and Wheeler on the night of the party and the following day forms the central “action” of the novel. Deza learns that Wheeler was in Spain during the Civil War, a fact of great significance to Deza, whose father lost his career and nearly lost his life as a result of having been betrayed during that war by a childhood friend. After Wheeler retires for the night, Deza stays up to search every book concerning the Spanish Civil War in Wheeler’s considerable library without finding a mention of Wheeler.
The narrator does find reference to a prominent Marxist named Andreas Nin who, rather than divulging secrets, died at the hands of the Republicans. In the margins of the book in which Nin’s fate is recounted, he finds a note in Wheeler’s hand: “Cf. ‘From Russia with Love.'” Deza locates copies of the Ian Fleming novels and finds that most of them are inscribed to Wheeler by the author. Here Marias throws a bone to the thrill-seeking reader — why 007?
The reference to James Bond is not picked up later in the book, perhaps because it is setting up the puzzles to be solved in the next two volumes. Certainly “Fever and Spear” is less about plot machinations than providing meditations on how mysterious people can be. Marius is concerned with what people know or don’t know, or know and refuse to acknowledge, what they reveal about what they know or don’t know, and the possible harm that results. Early in the novel, in a foreshadowing of future volumes, Deza muses, “To fall silent, yes, silent, is the great ambition that no one achieves, not even in death… No, I should not tell or hear anything, because I will never be able to prevent it from being repeated or used against me, to ruin me or — worse still — from being repeated or used against those I love, to condemn them.”
Marius has been aptly compared to the late German writer W.G. Sebald, in that both authors are concerned with exploring the psychological impact of time, memory, and history on society. As in Sebald, the pressure of the past on the present is driven by what happened to our parents. For Marius, it is the Spanish Civil War that looms large in his psychic landscape. The heart of the novel is the betrayal of Deza’s father, which occurred before the narrator was born. Both writers infuse their fiction with a documentary, non-fictional quality. “Fever and Spear” includes black-and-white photos and “reproduced” documents that add additional layers of enigma to the storyline — how much of this book is true and how much is false?
“Fever and Spear” gives few hints as to the direction Volumes Two and Three might take. Passing references are made to the government’s efforts to silence citizens after 9/11 and the coup against Hugo Chavez. Deza’s relationship with his wife, Sir Peter’s mysterious past, the nature of Tupra’s “group,” and the baffling 007 connection remain open questions. Marias ends with a sly allusion to the classic spy novel that raises the level of suspense several notches: a rainy night, a mysterious woman passed on the street, her face obscured by her umbrella, a ring at the door, and a female voice on the intercom known to Deza but not identified.
The title of the trilogy refers to one’s ability to predict what another’s face will be tomorrow — whether it will be the same face that was worthy of trust the day before. Given the elegant fascination generated by the first volume, it is fair to predict that the next installment, “Dance and Dream,” will provide even more evidence of Marias’ impressive talent.