martes, marzo 04, 2008

Seriously sinister


“Devouring Time", as Shakespeare called it, spares neither marble statue nor successful author, a fact underlined by the photograph on the back of Javier Marías's new novel, Volume Three of his trilogy Tu rostro mañana (Your Face Tomorrow), which was published to acclaim in Spain last September. Gone is the handsome, faintly feline-looking youth who gazed out at the reader from the jacket of A Heart So White (1992), or peered round a tottering pile of books on the back of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1995). The progression has been conventional enough: from promising young talent to distinguished luminary.

This is very much the portrait of an author who has arrived. As well it might be: for years the coming man of Spanish letters, Marías has established himself as one of the most important - and intriguing - novelists of our age. Seated at an anachronistic electric typewriter in the once obligatory booklined study, he exudes authorial authority and self-possession, his genius backed by the creativity of centuries. But other changes are also apparent. The high forehead is now all too evidently a hairline in retreat and colour photography is unsparing in its representation of a fuller, more florid face and greying temples. If the cigarette in his fingers suggests European sophistication and impatience with Anglo-Saxon political correctness, it is also a little self-consuming symbol of mortality.

It is true that Marías has tidied himself up since 2001, when readers of Dark Back of Time in its English translation were regaled with what had the look of a consciously arranged study in ravagement, an unshaven parody of that former self, his squinting expression set off by a badly crumpled sleeve and skewed shirt-collar, while the cigarette was burnt down almost to the knuckles. But then Marías's novel All Souls (1989) had been that copywriter's cliche, "a book that changes lives" - most of all, it would appear, its author's own. As the "false novel" Dark Back of Time reveals, that made-up story and its reception helped dictate the course of his career. If Marías had a bedraggled look in his photograph then, that was only to be expected in one caught in the turbulent wake of his earlier work. "It's very possible", he remarks, "that one part of my life . . . will forever be determined and ruled by a fiction, or by what this novel has brought me so far and what it has yet to bring."

All Souls is ostensibly slight, a comedy of English manners set in academic Oxford, its good humour tinged with understated melancholy. It is also a haunting, even thrilling novel, finding in the university city, its feuds, its scholarly obsessions, its eccentrics and its architecture, the perfect metaphor for a world in which a vanished past is a troubling presence in daily life.

Marías's narrator is almost comically unexcitable, but he firmly pulls away the veil of familiarity. The idea of a parallel existence is irresistibly evoked - not in any science fiction sense, but as a reminder of earlier realities and other possibilities; virtual lives scarcely any less real than those we have wound up living. And then there is the realization that, despite all our self-regard and our struggles to "be someone", if we do win the immortality we crave, it is as likely to be in walk-on parts in other people's dramas, peripheral appearances in other consciousnesses.

It was this assumption-upending energy that made All Souls so extraordinary in its impact; and it was this, rather than mere simple-mindedness on its readers' part, that encouraged its reception as a roman a clef. Marías had, like his narrator, spent time in Oxford as a visiting professor, but his insistence that these circumstances were merely a "loan" from an author to his character met with scepticism from those convinced that they had recognized friends and colleagues - in some cases themselves - among the novel's dramatis personae.

Few fates can be quite so unfair as that of being condemned to wear the scarlet letter for adultery with a fictional character, yet one unfortunate professor was apparently identified as the woman with whom the narrator of All Souls had had his affair. Readers in Madrid, meanwhile, asked Marías about the child his narrator mentions - an infant called into being by a literary device. Other lives were written out: one distinguished scholar saw his own death announced in a learned journal on the strength of "his" demise, as reported in the final chapter of All Souls.

Reports of the "death of the author" have been greatly exaggerated, as far as Marías is concerned. Those who have passed away in the flesh still haunt us in the here and now. Nowhere, perhaps, is Marías's anglophilia more evident than in his interest in literary biography; he has assembled a large collection of postcard-portraits of modern writers. Here too, however, we find evidence of his view that the "life" and "work" interpenetrate - and his impulse to intermingle both with out-and-out "fiction". In Written Lives (1992), he published a selection of these portraits with accompanying biographical essays.

"The idea", he wrote, "was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictional characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would like to be treated." That is how he has chosen to treat himself, though we are all of us perhaps most real in our least substantial aspects. Our words, heard or read and then remembered, may be more enduring than we could ever be - and, through the actions they instigate in others, more influential. Marías's photograph brings us face to face with a separate and objectively existent "Javier Marías"; at the same time, it is the portrait of someone who no longer is. Like any other image, it is a record of a moment past. Even if it didn't document physical change, it would still be a reminder of time's inexorable passage, as poignant in its way as any of the spectral Baroness Blixens, Rudyard Kiplings or Djuna Barneses in Written Lives.

From faces past to the face future: the title of the trilogy of which Veneno y sombra y adiós ("Poison and shadow and goodbye") is the concluding volume shifts the emphasis from the inescapable past to the unknowable to come. Not the eternal hereafter (though the reader might well wonder): the thought of the next hours and days is frightening enough as far as this ambitious fiction is concerned. Its three volumes are themselves subdivided, Fiebre y lanza having appeared in 2002 (translated as Fever and spear, 2005), while Baile y sueño followed in 2004 (Dance and dream, 2006). Like Marías's earlier writings, the completed Your Face Tomorrow muses on the ways in which we are formed by our accumulated impressions. More than earlier works, however, it looks forward too, considering how far the self now taking shape will define the self to come. "How", asks Marías's narrator, 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?

Much more is at stake than chronology: your face tomorrow will smile, frown or whatever else on me; we cannot know each other, yet we will have to live together.

Marías offers a sensibility rather than a philosophy, and this trilogy is first and foremost a hugely (if often improbably) compelling work of fiction; a spy thriller, albeit of a most unexpected kind. Our narrator Jaime (or Jacques or Jacobo or Jack) Deza, turns out to be the person whose acquaintance we first made all those years ago in All Souls - though in that novel we were never vouchsafed his name. Time has moved on for him too: since we last saw him he has gained and lost the wife who still has custody of his young children; they have another life in which he is no more than an occasional visitor. He is back in England, in London now, where he has been recruited to the secret intelligence agency run by Bertram Tupra, a contact of one of Deza's old Oxford friends.

So it is that we find ourselves in a world of nocturnal streets and cityscapes supercharged with atmosphere. The unpeopled night-time metropolis is a characteristic Marías setting. Granted, the noir note is always slightly off key; there is something quixotic about the rolled umbrella Deza carries over his shoulder "like a soldier's rifle" (though it is the modern mercenary rather than the medieval knight errant with whom he identifies). Granted too, the normal conventions are regularly confounded. Violence here goes hand in hand with the grotesque. A man is attacked in a nightclub toilet, but the blade that misses him by millimetres belongs to an antique landsknecht sword, as used by old-time German mercenaries and suggestive also of the Krays, but still incongruous. Suspense, meanwhile, is stalked by bathos: the mysterious woman with a dog who trails Deza home one rainy night, her raincoat swishing rhythmically against the animal beside her, turns out to be a colleague who wants a favour. But none of this makes the moments of violence less shocking, the suspense less gripping; the absurd and the unsettling cohabit in these pages. Deza moves in a strange and shadowy milieu, with elements of Ian Fleming, the Cambridge Spies and a contemporary surveillance-state dystopia; bookishly contrived, but seriously sinister at the same time.

His urge to uncover what is concealed is founded in part in a sense of self preservation, both historical and psychological. He can never forget his father's account of his betrayal in the early days of Franco's reign. The Spanish Civil War features in Your Face Tomorrow as a site of scholarly speculation and dispute, the generator of multifarious versions of events, all partial and incomplete. But it is also of more specific importance: it is the past that keeps on intruding into Deza's present and the warning that helps keep him permanently - all but ontologically - on edge. The old man had been betrayed by a "friend" whose face had been familiar to him throughout the 1930s, but whose face of 1939 he had failed to anticipate.

Deza's work for Tupra is the reading of people and the assessment of their characters: he spends most of his time witnessing interviews or watching recordings with a view to predicting likely reactions to particular circumstances. In a building with no name, he studies faces all day long in the service of a Crown which finds political leverage in the most personal aspects of its subjects' lives. In Veneno y sombra y adiós, our most intimate longings become the instruments of social order and administration. In a memorable episode, Deza is forced to watch his boss's prized collection of incriminating videotapes: dirt on some of the most important public figures of the day.

Involving scenes of sex and violence, from the banal to the horrific, these recordings are the hold Tupra has over them - but a hold he will save for the future, keep in reserve, very likely never use. The secrets of private individuals thus become not just public property but (as Tupra half-jokes) the "foundation of the State".

If such knowledge confers a hold, however, it also exerts one, Deza finds - this is the "poison" of the novel's title. As he watches, he feels the sights he is witnessing taking him over, a foreign body occupying his own, expelling other aspects of experience, not just the joyful and delightful but the routine. The poison "infiltrates and contaminates everything", one of its most striking effects being that, in the Orwellian society, universal surveillance goes along with wholesale denial. Orders and information go up and down the line; responsibility has been dispersed to vanishing-point: there is always a superior to refer to, an underling to blame. Again, Deza's father is an exemplary case: he was betrayed not to his face but through intermediaries; murder, war, oppression are similarly sanitized. The popular culture returns the compliment: in the age of the "Big Brother bonk", what once was most private is publicly displayed, depersonalized; the most intense of human interactions become banal.

One consequence is that discretion becomes exciting in itself. Deza's secret fling with a colleague here is practically sex in absentia. No conversation, no eye-contact, the absolute minimum of touch: the narrator himself admits afterwards that it is "too tacit and clandestine, not just with regard to others but to ourselves". The irony is that such a scene should end up carrying such a strong erotic charge. The desire to spy is of course analogous to other forms of possession. In the dark heart (Sombra) of this novel, Deza becomes increasingly tormented by suspicions about Luisa, his ex-wife. Throughout the trilogy, her absence has dogged his every step; now his need to know what she is up to becomes a mania. He applies the expertise he has acquired in his new life to rake over the remains of his old one, to poke and pry into her doings.

He stalks his supposed romantic rival with murderous thoughts in mind. Staking out the Prado, where he has heard the man studies, he sees in practically every painting confirmation of Luisa's love and his own betrayal. Behind his frantic jealousy is the unmanning fear that the advancement of Luisa's life in Madrid will reduce him to a disagreeable memory, a "poisoned shadow which goes on saying its gradual goodbye as it languishes", out of sight and increasingly out of mind, exiled and "expelled from time" in London.

After All Souls, its afterlife and aftershocks, this trilogy finds Marías firmly back in charge of his formidable talents: Your Face Tomorrow is as beautifully constructed as it is free-flowing. But the sense of consummation stops at the work itself. There is no prospect of peace or fulfilment on offer - just the suggestion that we would be well advised to cultivate our negative capability, our capacity for remaining in doubt, for we can hope to be sure neither of ourselves nor of others. All the chatter, from literature to gossip; all the insights of philosophy, the revelations of religion or daytime television won't tell us any of the things we really think we need to know. In this "wearying world of incessant transmission", muses Deza, we are heirs to centuries of similar influences, "and so we are born with the work well advanced but condemned to the fact that nothing will ever be quite achieved".

In this context, Marías's emphatic concluding inscription ("End of the Third and Last Volume of Your Face Tomorrow") is a hostage to fortune, but it can hardly be doubted that he has accomplished something remarkable here.

MICHAEL KERRIGAN

The Times Literary Supplement, 29 de febrero de 2008