Spanish writer and translator Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear (the first volume of a novel in three parts) came to me trailing its own clouds of glory. Lucinda, my beloved bibliotherapist over at Mr. Bs Emporium of Reading Delights, sent it to me calling it a cross between Proust and John Le Carré. The blurbs on the book itself (I have the British edition) are of the kind that are so emphatic in their appreciation that they couldn’t be anything but honest. “Nothing will stop me from devouring all Marías’s previous books” writes on critic, while another declares: “The next thing Marías deserves is the Nobel Prize”. Obviously, my expectations were quite high. Surprisingly, they were satisfied.
Part of the novel’s charm emerges from its pure originality, which is also the reason why it cannot disappoint. Cross between Proust and Le Carré is right; Marías creates his own genre with Your Face Tomorrow — a plotless, murky universe of espionage, Oxford Dons, wartime tales, and undercover agencies. Even that could be déjà-vu, I suppose, if it wasn’t for the added element of Marías’ distinct style. The author is not showing off, he’s having fun. He’s writing from his guts, letting his pen go wherever it wants — or so it seems, because, in the dark work of Your Face Tomorrow, it is essential that you conclude your trajectories, and Marías always concludes his trajectories. This is no easy feat in a novel of digressions, as this one is; the story advances slowly, surely, but the structure of the narrative is built up like Russian dolls, with bits of story fitting into one another. There’s simply nothing quite like it.
The story itself is about a Spaniard called Jacques Deza, the narrator, who is approached by a strange man called Bertram Tupra during a party hosted by a friend they have in common in Oxford. Tupra, it turns out, is the head of a special agency whose job it is, through the work of skilled, hand-picked agents, to conjecture large amounts of information about people by observing them closely for a very short time — things about them you could only find out if you’d known them for years. Deza is specifically chosen because he has this rare gift himself, a kind of instinctive judgement, the ability to know people incredibly well just by watching them, and begins to work for Tupra, watching videos and observing interviews with all sorts of people in order to find out how they would act when faced with a hard dilemma, if they are to be trusted, and what their values are. The larger purpose of this task remains a mystery, at least in this volume.
Yet, the book is also about a lot more than that. Two of its characters were inspired by real people the author knew well. The first is Sir Peter Russel, who becomes Peter Wheeler in the story, a professor of Hispanic History at Oxford, a perfectionist and a hedonist of sorts, with a past as a spy for the MI5 and MI6 in the 1930s and 40s. (You can read the fascinating obituary of Professor Sir Peter Russell here to get a sense of the richness of the character). Through him and the party he hosts in Oxford, Marías cleverly explores the aura of this mythic university and the quirky characters who inhabit it (as he did in his 1992 novel All Souls), as well as the secret history of so many Oxford pre-war graduates who were hired as spies by the British government. The author’s own father also finds his way into the novel as the narrator’s father, a journalist during the Spanish Civil War who was imprisoned after Franco’s victory on the basis of lies told by a treacherous friend.
Fever and Spear is a masterpiece: an intellectual thriller, an introspective page turner, a narrative experiment which burns its own unassuming, singular path through contemporary literature. Only a full school year and an undergraduate thesis will stop me from reading the other two volumes of Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow.