Zip the Lips

Lorna Scott Fox

When I said I was moving from northern Spain to Seville, the same warning came from every northerner I knew: those Andalusians always act so friendly, but watch out, you can’t trust them. I found this puzzling, for the only thing I’d want to trust them to be was friendly, however superficially; I didn’t expect them to save my life, or even to keep my non-existent secrets. In Seville too I was continually warned against other people, in a dark but vague way. Men, especially, claimed with gloomy pride to have no friends because they couldn’t ‘trust’ anyone. Privately I concluded that this must be a hangover from recent Spanish history, a reflex that had outlived its causes. Only a generation ago, after all, you had to be pretty careful what you said and to whom.

Javier Marías, born in 1951, is of an age to have been marked by the past. His parents were deeply affected by the Civil War. He witnessed fear and caution under dictatorship, and then the readjustment of guilty pasts to fit in with the democracy hurriedly plastered over them after Franco’s death. This could go some way towards explaining the watchful misgiving that pervades Fever and Spear, the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow. The novel focuses grimly on past conflict and suspicion in England (where it is set) but also in Spain.

Careless babble has no consequences for any character in the main narrative of Fever and Spear, for all the narrator’s insistence that ‘anything you say may be used against you,’ or his harping on the phrase ‘Keep quiet, then save yourself.’ The betrayal of Marías’s father by a friend in 1939, relayed here with minimal fictional disguise, is the grounds for building a monumental thesis on the belief that ‘what awaits everyone to a greater or lesser extent’ is ‘tale-telling, treachery, back-stabbing, denunciation, calumny, defamation, accusation’. This is repeatedly stated rather than shown, and Fever and Spear reads like an incantatory essay. The Spanish jury who awarded it the Salambó Prize in 2003 announced that a novel of ‘ideas’ had prevailed over two rivals distinguished by ‘plot’ and ‘language’ respectively.

Marías’s tenth and wordiest novel is also a novel of paradoxes about words. The most whimsical of these paradoxes – a novelist recommending silence – is introduced in the first line: ‘One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion.’ Never mind ‘one-eyed’, which sounds strange in Spanish, too. Except for its unusual brevity, this first sentence is a microcosm of Marías’s late style: the abstract musings; the lists of synonyms; the afterthoughts tacked on with yet another ‘or’; the jaundiced view of human relationships. The paragraph continues:

Telling is almost always done as a gift, even when the story contains and injects some poison, it is also a bond, a granting of trust, and rare is the trust or confidence that is not sooner or later betrayed, rare is the close bond that does not grow twisted or knotted and, in the end, become so entangled that a razor or knife is needed to cut it.

It goes on in the same vein for the next ten pages, during which we still think we are about to discover the experiences that turned the narrator (‘I, who have been ingenuous for far too long’) into a bitter paranoiac. Little by little we come to accept that there’s no particular reason, that the unfolding of events – to the extent that there are any events – will be perpetually deferred by a stream of anecdote, opinion, speculation, and real or hybrid history. The loose ends introduced in this first volume are left dangling.

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