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.

For instance, what did the narrator, Jacques/Jaime/Jacobo Deza, now living a kind of exile in England, do that made his wife kick him out, and why must he have so many names? What was the ‘great irresponsibility’ he committed when working for a top-secret British organisation, possibly founded by Churchill during World War Two? What did Deza’s mentor, Sir Peter Wheeler (modelled on the Oxford professor Sir Peter Russell), do during the Spanish Civil War? And what about the bloodstain on his stairs? What is being set up by the narrator’s constant outing of ‘bogus Britons’ of foreign birth, Wheeler among them? Suspicion is contagious, and by the end of Fever and Spear, one suspects that such clues may be nothing more than teasing traps for tidy minds.

Marías has said that for his three-part novel (part two still to be translated, part three to be written) he has simply created a ‘world I feel comfortable in’, which readers are invited to inhabit for the long haul. Ideally, he suggests, they should abandon all curiosity about what happens next in rapt surrender to the telling, as if reading Proust or Cervantes. Another model of digression and capricious chronology is surely Sterne, whom Marías has translated. Cervantes can be sensed in the mix of fantasy and realism, philosophy and cruelty; Proust hovers both in the long sentences – though Marías’s sentences tend to be plain long, rather than enticingly built – and in the interest in time. Marías imagines time as a plastic substance, an environment with its own form and content, more enveloping than physical space, which he makes comparatively intangible; time stretches simultaneously forwards and back, obliterating the present, open to rearrangement and expansion.

This conceit governs the momentum-thwarting structure. Seconds freeze to make way for disquisitions, chronology is hacked about so that effects precede causes, and the stages of an incident are reshuffled through the work. Transposed to the narrative, this theory of time justifies the absence of character development. Deza believes that human natures are fixed, over and above the accidents of the moment that happen to unlock this aspect or that: ‘The same actions and the same people are themselves as well as their opposite, today and yesterday, tomorrow, afterwards, long ago. And in between there is only time that takes such pains to dazzle us, which is all it wants and seeks, which is why none of us is to be trusted, we who are still travelling through time.’

This paradoxically means that we could be different, in different circumstances. We cannot know whether we are victims, killers or informers until history offers us the opportunity. An individual’s psychological lifetime is thus reframed as a defining space, from which one may be ‘expelled’, like Deza, whose proper time is unreeling without him back in Spain. But time is also a separate, malign force with which one contends (‘then time weighed heavy on me, or I hampered its passing’). It distorts our perceptions. Most of us are prevented by cowardice and vanity from seeing beyond the contingent, but the person who looks clearly apprehends everything at once. Deza is one such rarity. Hence his top-secret job as a professional ‘interpreter of lives’.

Wheeler, who manoeuvres him into it, tells him the history of the ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’ campaign, a doomed national security initiative that asked citizens to give up talking, telling, slandering, joking and lying, ‘the engine of life’, and become as silent as the dead, the only people capable, for Wheeler, of keeping what they know ‘under their hats’. Moved by self-importance, people became twice as garrulous. The secret services, inspired to exploit all those loosened tongues in a different way from the eavesdropping Nazis, proposed to ‘find out what they would and wouldn’t be capable of doing and how far they could be trusted’.

An elite few observers, lucid enough to perceive what is always unwittingly exposed by talk, were chosen for the secret agency, to spy on their own people. (Here Marías concocts an English analogy to the Spanish psychosis of civil war.) Their successors – those with the necessary skills are increasingly hard to find, apparently, amid the growth of general obtuseness – are still, to this day, spying away, principally on British citizens, though the group’s current purpose is a mystery: the secret has never, ever been leaked. Deza’s first assignment, under a florid and almost certainly bogus character called Bertram Tupa, is to assess whether a Venezuelan interviewee would be capable of killing President Chávez in a coup. Homing in, Holmes-like, on the wrong shade of crocodile shoes, Deza thinks not. Later he watches video clips of all sorts of people: celebrities and anonymous Joes, people requesting a loan, quarrelling in a hotel room, boozing in a pub. His verdicts are rapid and, he admits, largely a matter of audacity or bluff. He never discovers what use is made of his opinions, which bear on what people have it in them to become: their ‘face tomorrow’.

For the possible Shakespearean provenance of that phrase, the trilogy’s title, I am indebted to Marías’s Spanish internet fan club, where disciples unpack the references hidden inside a work which they also admire for its high-minded misanthropy, lexical range – nearly as many words as in the Quijote! – and rhetorical flourishes, including prolepsis, analepsis and litotes. A posting sends us to Henry IV Part 2, Act 2, Scene 2, where Prince Hal remarks to his low-life companion Poins: ‘What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name, or to know thy face tomorrow.’ (Another contribution boldly proposes that, since fever makes us shake, the first volume’s title contains the whole Bard.) It is difficult to make anything of the prince’s words in the context of this book, since he is speaking of the social disgrace he has to endure, not of reading Poins’s future behaviour. But then Wheeler evokes, without naming him, the same figure in the future, wearing what would be his face tomorrow: the king who in Henry V, disguised, fraternises with his soldiers on the eve of battle, and realises that only ‘ceremony’, and, in Wheeler’s gloss, ‘secrecy, mystery, inscrutability, silence’, raises him above them. The heart’s ease of talk is ‘within the grasp of any beggar, any outcast, any poor wretch’. Are we to understand from this that the superior ability of the select, taciturn few to observe and discern is actually the book’s central theme? I was hoping to make something else of the phantom notion of ‘disgrace’ within the title. Briefly encouraged by my chance discovery of a grand inquisitor named Deza, I hoped to press it into service as a buried suggestion that all this snooping, voyeuristic manipulation of others might be disgraceful. But I can’t really do this, because Deza’s pretensions are never undermined – except by their ludicrousness.

The narrators of Marías’s previous novels are more ambiguous. Deza is, indeed, an explicit reprise of the visiting Spanish professor in All Souls (1989) whose monitoring of others leads him into moral degradation. The great talent of the narrator of A Heart So White (1992) is for listening: that ‘most dangerous thing . . . since ears lack lids that can instinctively close against what is being uttered’; he is drawn into murky complicities. The narrator of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994) lies, spies and steals to preserve himself. Like Deza, they are outsider figures, often living in a foreign country where they are forced to interpret the behaviour of others; in addition, they work as translators or ghostwriters. But in Fever and Spear the presentation of perceptive individuals surrounded by common blindness is uncritical: the concern with lying, betrayal, self-deception, speaking and silence remains, but mostly on an abstract, discursive level. Embedded within all the prolix advice to zip the lips, however, there are two sub-stories which treat the subject differently, and directly.

The first considers the fate of Andrés Nin, the POUM militant accused of collaboration and executed by the Communists during the Civil War. In a painful variation on the injunction to keep quiet and save oneself – and a welcome questioning of it – we are reminded that though Nin kept quiet under torture, he was not saved. The second story is a version of what happened to the author’s father, the philosopher Julián Marías. Falsely denounced as an active Red propagandist by his best friend, who was seeking to ingratiate himself with the victorious Franquist forces in 1939, he was imprisoned and later blacklisted. In the book, Deza keeps asking his father how he could ever have trusted his best friend; his father responds with a dignified refusal to be bitter. The son, with his tiresome perspicacity, would never be so taken in:

How can someone not see, in the long term, that the person who does end up ruining us will indeed ruin us? How can you not sense or guess at their plotting, their machinations, their circular dance, not smell their hostility or breathe their despair, not notice their slow skulking, their leisurely, languishing waiting, and the inevitable impatience they would have had to contain for who knows how many years? How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?

In yoking true rage with blowsy histrionics, this episode highlights the disabling problem with Fever and Spear. It’s a lumpy, unblended mixture of Marías’s well-known biography, personal gripes about society (better expressed in his journalism for the Sunday supplement of El País), and historical or literary concerns, with fictional ingredients that look thin or preposterous by comparison. In contrast, a reissued novella of 1986, The Man of Feeling, is hauntingly effective within the bounds of its more conventional ambitions.

The first-person narrator of this book is, as usual, an outsider, an opera singer who spends most of his time in foreign hotels on tour. This estranged position allows him to make many peevish observations about the general crassness around him, but here it’s convincingly in character: Marías paints a fastidious, endearingly ridiculous poser known as the Lion of Naples. He meets a trio on a train: a neurotic woman, the powerful but unloved tycoon who ‘owns’ her, and her male keeper. Inspired more by the desire to destroy the husband, an übermensch who humiliates him, than by real longing for the elusive Natalia, the singer attaches himself to her with dogged servility and, to our amazement, wins her. The tale is an elegant, cruel comedy that plays on ancient myths about captive damsels, eunuchs and ogres, rescue and redemption, but with a modern emptiness at its heart. Slowly we realise that the ‘present’ (the sporadically visited time at which the narrator is telling his story) is the moment four years later when the singer finds that he, in turn, has been left by Natalia. The ‘man of feeling’ is revealed to be the chilly tycoon, Manur, who killed himself after losing his beloved. As Manur’s final hours are imagined by the singer, the two rivals become entwined, and the novel ends:

My day is over and I feel sleepy, I wonder what I will dream about tonight when I put down this pen and go to bed alone. My consciousness is accustomed to remaining alert (gennaio, agosto, novembre). Manur looks at his hand in the shadows. Then, sitting down, dressed to go out, he feels a desire to destroy himself. My hand is in the shadows. But don’t worry, I would be incapable of following his example.

This poised, creepy little fable is well served by its old-fashioned atmosphere; we could be in the world of Joseph Roth or Somerset Maugham. The same quaintness does nothing for Fever and Spear. Now that our paranoias are fed by technology, from CCTV to loyalty cards, the artisanal image of clever chaps guessing at psychological essences strangely misses the impersonal nature of modern insecurity. Fear and violence are reportedly the subject of the second volume of Your Face Tomorrow. I have seen only the first sentence, which offers little hope of a more relevant analysis as it wades moodily back into the perils of personal contact: ‘If only no one were ever to ask anything of us, or make the least request, for any advice or favour or loan . . .’ Marías’s depoliticised concept of humanity as a collection of quaking individuals, armoured against each other, reaching the end of their time ‘with shield all battered and spear blunt and dull’, is not only depressing; it misses the point.