Though I'm no longer quite sure what the term "literary fiction" actually means- one person's literature is someone else's mass entertainment- Javier Marias's trilogy Your Face Tomorrow would no doubt have to be placed in that category. If for no other reason than it makes allusions to classic texts, is contemplative, has historical depth and includes long, elaborate sentences that sometimes span an entire page. At the same time, the trilogy, unlike much literary fiction, depicts a recognisable world, is gripping, horrifying and even funny. For this is a spy novel in the most complete sense of the term, in that the protagonist, Deza, a Spaniard separated from his wife and living in London, works for the intelligence service, interpreting what he sees and hears. It's also a spy novel in the sense that the narrator spies on the world, which makes the reader realize that he or she is also a spy who must disentangle fact from fiction. Or perhaps this is literary fiction simply because it tackles such themes as memory, time, the manipulation of history, literature, exile, betrayal, terror, the state, man's inhumanity, language and translation (in fact, it's also a remarkable feat of translation that Margaret Jull Costa manages).
Each volume begins with a statement which, as the novel progresses, is expanded upon, scrutinized, tested and even compromised as they move through the currents and undercurrents of history. In Marias's world, time collapses, then expands, while single events can take scores of pages to describe, much less resolve. Events that happen in the early part of a novel might not be spoken about until the final pages, or not spoken about at all; they might only be referred to, implied or, like a musical theme, referred to time and again. Meanwhile, historical events, like the Spanish Civil War or World War Two, are rearticulated from one perspective or another.
Because the narrative moves linearly, it's important to read these novels in the order in which they appeared. The first volume, "Fever and Spear," centers on a party in Oxford, where Deza is told by his old friend, a don at the university, that someone attending the party, because of Deza's skills at language and perceptual abilities, might be interested in employing him. So Deza goes to work in a building without a name for job that has no name as a translator and interpreter ("a translator of people, or an interpreter of lives"). That volume's opening sentence, or part of it, sets the scene and reverberates throughout the book: "One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion."
The second volume, "Dance and Dream," takes place mainly in a disco, where Deza witnesses a terrifying and violent event perpetrated by his boss, but it's an event in which Deza colludes for which he bears some responsibility. This volume's first sentence- "Let us hope that no one ever asks for anything, or even enquires, no advice or favor or loan, not even the loan of our attention, let us hope that others do not ask us to listen to them, to their wretched problems and their painful predicaments, so like our own..."- will soon be tested. The book ends with a request by a woman who works at the building with no name, but what that request is and how it will be acted upon is not revealed until the next volume.
The final volume, "Poison, Shadow and Farewell," begins with "While it isn't ever something we would wish for, we would all nonetheless always prefer it to be the person beside us who dies..." Again, it's a sentence that will reverberate throughout the book, as Deza moves between London to Madrid. In this volume one discovers what that request was. More importantly, Deza finds himself infected by the poison conveyed in images of the despicable things things people can do to one another, which forces him to question the morality of his job, but not before he too must perform a violent act.
Although the three volumes constitute more than 1200 pages, I gobbled them up one after the other. Perhaps I'd been starving for this kind of fiction, the sort that makes you stop and think about things, and, above all, consider the morality of what is taking place on the page or in the world. At the same time, Your Face Tomorrow contains some of the most shocking and horrific writing I've come across. Perhaps that's because Marias slows things down to let the events and thoughts sink in. In an age of minimalism, anything filled with nuance and emotion is going to be, by definition, frightening and moving.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.