Magnum Photos

Javier Marías, Madrid, 2005; photograph by Ferdinando Scianna

Although published in three volumes, of which this last is by some distance the longest, Your Face Tomorrow is not really a trilogy; it’s a single novel (one that in total runs to 1,260 pages) divided into seven parts that all have oneword titles: “Fever,” “Spear,” “Dance,” “Dream,” “Poison,” “Shadow,” “Farewell.” Like all Marías’s earlier novels, it’s a first-person narrative, and this—combined with its length, ambition, and its narrator’s penchant for extended, complexly woven sentences—has led a number of reviewers to compare it to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Its central character, however, Jacques Deza, is blessed—or cursed—with an ability not to recover the past but to predict, not completely but more accurately than most, the future.

The novel’s title is taken from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Tiring of the Cheapside revelers with whom he is beginning to feel he has frittered away too much time, the prince-in-waiting, Hal, intemperately bursts out to one of them: “What a disgrace it is to me to remember thy name, or to know thy face tomorrow, or to take note how many pair of silk stockings thou hast.” Deza’s development, like that of Hal, is toward a discomforting awareness of the unsparing realities of power, of cruelty and violence and fear, and he changes, as Hal does, from an ambivalent, marginal figure into someone who believes he can take ruthless, decisive action when required—and when justified. At one point Deza refers to Hal’s curt dismissal, shortly after being crowned Henry V, of his erstwhile drinking partner, Falstaff: “I know thee not, old man.” Treachery plays a crucial part in many of Marías’s fictions, and it is no coincidence that the title of his magnum opus gestures toward one of the most famous betrayals in literature.

Jacques Deza cannot literally see into the future. What he can do is observe people closely, and then use these observations to predict how they are likely to respond to particular circumstances or pressures. He is an expert “translator or interpreter of people,”

of their behaviour and reactions, of their inclinations and characters and powers of endurance; of their malleability and their submissiveness, of their faint or firm wills, their inconstancies, their limits, their innocence, their lack of scruples and their resistance; their possible degrees of loyalty or baseness and their calculable prices and their poisons and their temptations; and also their deducible histories, not past but future, those that had not yet happened and could therefore be prevented. Or, indeed, created.

The analogy between Deza’s powers of observation and those required by the writer of fiction is one of Marías’s ongoing jests. He has always enjoyed dramatizing the porous nature of the borderline between fiction and reality, toying in novels such as All Souls (whose protagonist, though unnamed, is in fact Jacques Deza some ten years earlier) and Dark Back of Time with the idea of the roman à clef, only to denounce in tones of mock outrage the very notion of there being similarities between the characters who appear in these books and real people. (Both contain many scenes set in Oxford, where Marías was a lecturer in Spanish literature between 1983 and 1985.)

On his return from Madrid to England after his marriage to Luisa, with whom he has two children, has gently foundered, Deza resumes contact with a retired Oxford don called Professor Peter Wheeler (based on the great Hispanic scholar and Secret Service agent Sir Peter Russell, Wheeler, 1913–2006). Wheeler, aware of Deza’s gift, proceeds to recruit him for a peculiar unnamed espionage group for which he himself once worked. Its current director of operations is Bertram Tupra, and it is to Tupra that Deza makes his assessments of the various characters he studies either on video footage or from behind one-way glass as they are interviewed at Secret Service headquarters in London.

“Poison,” the first part of this third installment, opens with Tupra attempting to explain to Deza why he has just committed the act of extraordinary violence with which the previous section reached its climax, a seemingly unnecessary assault on De la Garza, a relatively harmless, though irritating, minor Spanish embassy official. His “crime” is to have danced a little too exuberantly with the wife of a Mafia boss whom Tupra is entertaining at a London disco, inadvertently striking her cheek with his gyrating hairnet and thus raising a welt there. Tupra’s response is to entrap the luckless De la Garza in the disco’s disabled toilet and produce a sixteenth-century German sword (a Landsknecht or Katzbalger), with which he three times almost beheads his victim, though in the end he contents himself with breaking a few ribs and nearly drowning him in the toilet. Forced to witness and even to assist in this terrifying battering of his compatriot, Deza eventually summons up the courage to complain to Tupra that, in his opinion, “you can’t just go around beating people up, killing them.” “But why,” Tupra replies, “according to you, can’t one do that?”


“Poison” resumes the debate with which “Dream” ended. Back at Tupra’s house in Hampstead, Deza is made to watch a DVD that Tupra believes demonstrates why he can go around beating up people and killing them—or perhaps he is just taking advantage of an opportunity to induct his recruit into the brute facts of life in order to render him fitter for purpose. The DVD consists mainly of documentary footage of people being beaten up and killed. Deza watches the Mafia chief with whom he dined, and with whose wife he danced that very night, using a penknife to gouge out the eyes of a man tied to a chair, “the way someone uses a dessert knife to cut out the stone from a peach half, or the seeds from a watermelon.” He watches a woman astride a man, smashing his head with a hammer. Tupra explains in Deza’s ear the strategic value of each incident: among the silent witnesses of the torture by repeated hanging of a hooded prisoner is a high-ranking American politician; one of the executioners of three men and a woman by machine gun on a beach in the Golfo de Taranto is in the current Italian government; in the crowd watching a woman being raped by a horse in Coahuila is a prominent, potentially important Mexican businessman.

“Resist the desire not to watch,” urges Tupra, and Deza slowly feels the poison entering his system:

And when I use that word “poison,” I’m not doing so lightly or purely metaphorically, but because something entered my consciousness that had not been there before and provoked in me an immediate feeling of creeping sickness, of something alien to my body and to my sight and to my mind, like an inoculation, and that last term is spot on etymologically, for it contains at its root the Latin “oculus,” from which it comes, and it was through my eyes that this new and unexpected illness entered, through my eyes which were absorbing images and registering them and retaining them, and which could no longer erase them as one might erase a bloodstain on the floor, still less not have seen them.

To those unfamiliar with Marías’s fiction, I hope this passage conveys the quirky, hypnotic, and utterly original way he mediates thriller or noir scenarios through a formidably erudite and elegant and sophisticated consciousness that ponders from every conceivable angle, almost in the manner of late Henry James characters such as Lambert Strether or Maggie Verver, the problems the narrative generates.

But whereas one can finish The Golden Bowl and still be a little uncertain about who did what to whom and when, Deza’s elaborate speculations and disquisitions on the nature of knowledge, and his use of citations from such writers as T.S. Eliot and Rilke as recurring leitmotifs, are prompted by, and revolve around, events of startling and vividly presented violence. The last two sections of the novel describe Deza’s return to Madrid and his attempts to deal in Tupra fashion with his wife’s current lover, one Custardoy. Here Marías graphically demonstrates how the poison Deza imbibed in Hampstead has infected his soul.

Marías aficionados will recognize the name of Custardoy from the earlier novel A Heart So White, which features the characters Custardoy the Elder and Custardoy the Younger. Father and son are both specialists in copying—and occasionally forging—old master paintings. The utterly repellent Custardoy the Younger is sexually voracious and, it is suggested in A Heart So White, dangerously kinky. The narrator of the earlier novel, Juan Ranz, who is also married to a woman named Luisa, claims he knows “of prostitutes who, after spending a night with Custardoy the Younger, have left, terrified, and have always refused to talk about what happened, even if he’d taken two of them to bed and they could therefore encourage and console each other.”

Of all the many improbabilities that throw off balance the reader of Your Face Tomorrow, the attraction of the seemingly gentle, distracted Luisa to a cruel, cold-blooded lecher like Custardoy the Younger is perhaps the most glaring. What’s more, he beats her up, although possibly at her behest when they are in bed together. Deza returns to Madrid to find his estranged wife sporting a gruesome black eye, and learns from her sister (who has discussed Custardoy with Juan Ranz) of an earlier gash on the cheek almost certainly inflicted by her new beau. Appalled, he phones Tupra in London for advice, and is characteristically told: “Look, Jack, just deal with him…. Just make sure he’s out of the picture.”


Initially Deza imagines recreating Tupra’s sword display in the disco toilet, and so visits a bullfighter friend in order to borrow an estoque, the thin pointed sword with which a matador dispatches a bull. Miquelín the bullfighter dissuades him from this impractical choice of weapon, and lends him a gun instead. Deza tracks down his quarry to the Prado, where Custardoy is copying a family portrait by Parmigianino, then trails him to his lair in Calle Mayor. An element of the absurd hangs over his adoption of the role of gumshoe, but the intimidation scene itself is one of the most unsettling in Marías’s fiction. Despite the gun trained on him, Custardoy skillfully baits his antagonist, and plausibly denies his own guilt:

“Look, pal,” again that hateful belittling term, “everyone has their own sexuality, and with some partners it comes out naturally and with others it doesn’t. Didn’t the same thing happen when she was with you? I mean, what can I say, pal, I had no idea either. It just happened and you have to give people what they want. Or don’t you think so?”

The moral issues that dominate Your Face Tomorrow are brought sharply into focus here. The argument, rehearsed at length by Tupra, that a little violence is justified when it staves off some greater danger is only tenuously applicable to this battle over a woman. “What face am I wearing now?” muses Deza, who, as always, is allowed to meditate expansively, despite the pressing drama of the moment, on the implications of the action he is contemplating: the shooting of Custardoy would ally his face with those of notorious killers from the Spanish civil war and World War II, with the faces of the numerous murderers he saw in action on Tupra’s DVD, indeed with the faces of all those who have ended others’ lives throughout history:

The face of the woman in green, her skirt all rucked up and wearing a sweater and a pearl necklace and high heels but with no stockings, who crushed the skull of a man with a hammer and sat astride him to strike his forehead over and over;…the face of Manoia, yes him too, who scooped out the eyes of his prisoner as if they were peach stones and then, according to Tupra, slit his throat; and all those centuries before, the face of Ingram Frizer, who stabbed to death the poet Marlowe in a tavern in Deptford, even though his face is unknown and his name, too, remains uncertain; and, of course, the face of King Richard, who ordered his two little nephews in the Tower to be strangled, and had many others killed too, whether in his angry mood or not, including poor Clarence, drowned by two henchmen in a butt of disgusting wine and held by the legs, which remained outside the barrel and flailed ridiculously about in the air he would never breathe again….

After pages and pages of such symphonic deliberations, Deza finally acts decisively: he doesn’t shoot Custardoy, but with the painter’s own fire poker smashes his left hand, breaking it in many places; slashes his cheek, causing a deep cut; then strikes the same hand a second and third time, fracturing the lower parts of the fingers between the palm and knuckle; after this show of force he orders Custardoy to leave Madrid, to break off with Luisa by phone, and never to see her again.

Does this effectively remove him from the picture? And how does his deployment of Tupra’s brand of violence change Deza’s face? Can he, like Hal after his coronation, declare, “Presume not that I am the thing I was…. I have turn’d away my former self”? In the last pages of the book Deza runs into Custardoy, who now wears a black glove on his left hand, and receives from him a look of utter loathing and a silent threat that he will one day seek revenge. The look forces Deza to accept that there is no way he can extract from his being the poison with which it has been contaminated, but it also strengthens his sense that, for all his disquiet at Tupra’s methods, he has turned into someone capable of living in the dark shadow of the dubious use of violence.

In this Marías contrasts him with Sir Peter Wheeler’s wife, Valerie, the story of whose suicide Deza finally learns in the course of the last visit he makes to Wheeler in Oxford. It is the most affecting and resonant of the many inset narratives Marías works into the progress of Deza’s education in the treacherous nature of the trade-offs between ethics and action that make up, to use an oft-repeated phrase of Tupra’s, the way of the world. As a child Valerie spent many summers in the 1920s and 1930s with a family who lived on the banks of the Danube in Lower Austria. The oldest daughter in the family, Ilse, falls in love with and marries a certain Rendl, an ardent supporter of the Nazis, despite the fact that his own grandmother was Jewish. Like many another Mischling, Rendl uses bribery to have the papers recording his grandmother’s racial profile removed from the record—though in fact they are not destroyed—and he is able to join the SS.

Valerie learns of Rendl’s quarter-Jewishness from her best friend in the family, Maria, and during the war, which she spends attached to a British unit that specializes in “black propaganda” and dirty deeds generally (a precursor of the one in which Wheeler, Tupra, and Deza serve), she suggests to a ruthless superior the idea of making use of this information. An infiltrator is instructed to disseminate it to the Nazi authorities, and, as hoped, the SS launches a witch hunt for Mischlinge in its own ranks. Rendl is arrested and sent to a concentration camp. His wife and their two daughters accompany him, and all perish there. Valerie learns of this only after the war is over, in a letter she receives from Maria. Unable to endure the thought that her betrayal of her friend’s confidence has condemned her friend’s sister and brother-in-law and nieces to death, she shoots herself one tormented night with a hunting rifle.

It would take a bold moral philosopher to reach a clear-cut verdict in such a case. Valerie’s tragedy, coming, as it does, toward the conclusion of this brilliant novel, surely one of the greatest the century has so far produced, is expounded by her widower of sixty years, who is now himself on the verge of the grave, with a meticulous, thoughtful exactitude that does heart-rending justice to the intolerable situation into which history plunged her. It is the novel’s most unequivocally painful example of what Deza calls “narrative horror,” and it reveals to the full the uncanny, dispassionate power with which Marías delineates an individual’s entanglement in his or her times: as W.G. Sebald—a writer not known for his lavish praise of contemporaries—once put it, Marías “uses language like an anatomist uses the scalpel to cut away the layers of the flesh in order to lay bare the innermost secrets of that strangest of species, the human being.”

Deza has come to Oxford to consult Wheeler about an analogous ethical issue. One of the subjects on whom Tupra demanded a report was an aging rock star Deza decides to call Dick Dearlove—a surname borrowed tongue-in-cheek from a former head of MI6. In his assessment Deza augurs that Dearlove “might one day commit some atrocity in order to be remembered just for that.” On the plane back from Madrid to London he learns to his dismay from the British newspapers that this is exactly what has just happened: a seventeen-year-old East European, possibly a rentboy, has been found dead in the rock star’s living room, impaled on a ceremonial spear. (Aside from Deza’s use of a gun to intimidate Custardoy, Marías’s taste in weaponry is unfailingly bizarre.) Deza darkly suspects that Tupra has stage-managed this murder, but is at a loss to think what threat the vain and boastful Dickie Dearlove could pose to the realm. “Without my prognostications,” he explains to Wheeler, “Dearlove would not be a murderer. And a young man who had nothing whatsoever to do with it wouldn’t have died.”

Wheeler, however, has little time for such scruples. He studies Deza just as Deza studied subjects such as Dearlove for Tupra, and briskly concludes: “Of course you can live with it. I can assure you that, unlike Valerie, you can live with what’s happened to you or with what you think of as having happened to you.”

Again, it would be a bold moral philosopher who could declare without hesitation that Valerie’s suicide proved her to be ethically superior to Deza. It’s a question of learning what, to quote a line of Philip Larkin’s, one “can stand/Without them sending a van”; that is, what degree of “narrative horror” each individual can cope with without going insane. And this “narrative horror” belongs not just to the past, but to the future too. Back in Madrid, having resigned from the organization, reunited with Luisa but uneasily aware that Custardoy has by no means been conclusively removed from the picture, Deza must both guard from his wife the secret of his assault on her former lover and prepare for the maimed Custardoy’s attempt at revenge. Despite his ability to analyze the way others are likely to respond or behave, Deza is as powerless as the rest of us to predict the changes the future may wreak on his own face tomorrow.

This Issue

May 27, 2010