Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Spanish Masterpiece. . .

With Spain having just triumphed at the World Cup, there's no better time to celebrate one of its best contemporary writers, and in particular sing the praises of one of the most enthralling and terrific books I've ever read - Javier Marías' Your Face Tomorrow, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

I'd had a number of Marías' novels accumulating on my shelf starting with All Souls (when I was in my phase of collecting novels set in Oxford) and one of them was the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow (it's published in three volumes, but is not meant as a trilogy - the set needs to be read as one complete novel). And then when Conversational Reading , one of the blogs I regularly follow, started an online group read of the novel, I thought it was the perfect time to crack it open. And I was quickly, passionately, viscerally hooked.

This isn't a novel where plot is paramount, although once you start, the narrative is so mysterious and intriguing that it becomes a complete page turner (indeed, I was so absorbed that I started reading far ahead of the planned schedule). Jaime Deza is a translator from Madrid who previously spent two years teaching at Oxford (recounted in the novel All Souls, which you don't need to have previously read, but you'll certainly want to afterwards). Now he's back in London, separated from his wife Luisa, missing his children and feeling lonely and dislocated in what he feels will always be a foreign city. Through some former Oxford connections, he's recruited to work for a strange agency that nevertheless pays extremely well. Deza has the gift of being able to quickly judge the personalities and characters of strangers and to predict how they might react (and act) to any given situation. He watches them through a two way mirror and prepares reports for his boss Tupra, never knowing what happens next or how these reports will be used. He's not even sure who he works for. Could it be MI5? One night he accompanies Tupra and some clients to a nightclub and unwillingly participates in a bizarre incident that changes Deza's view of his boss, causes him to seriously question his own apathy and responsibility, and subsequently leads him to act in way he never would have thought himself capable of. His "tomorrow" will indeed wear a very different face. Or perhaps he just hasn't been looking too closely in the mirror.

This is however a novel that you should read for its fantastically original literary style. Marías weaves an intricate and cyclical dance through Deza's thoughts and recollections, his own personal past and that of his father and friends, and the unexpected intersections with history and literature that enrich and influence but also disturb the present. There are preoccupations with the Spanish Civil War, spying, wartime propoganda, James Bond movies (have a copy of With Russia From Love handy as you'll definitely want to watch it again), feet and footwear, dancing, a mysterious drop of blood, the weather, love, guilt, and above all with the notion and perceptions of time - past, present and future -ever elusive, inevitable and inescapable. The writing is spectacularly beautiful - rhythmical, inventive and astonishingly witty at times; it completely draws the reader in. This is a novel that would absolutely make my desert island list with its almost constant invitation to repeated re-read. My copy is already copiously underlined. And Javier Marías has now leaped onto my list of all-time favourite writers; fortunately he's written a number of books that I'm now eager to get my hands on.

Conversational Reading kindly invited me to contribute a guest post about the novel on their blog. It went up today and you can read it here (note: there are some spoilers). You'll see that I'm also recommending this novel for people who loved Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. In fact I think there's a wonderful thread of influence and ideas that links Proust to Powell to Marías. There are very few works of literature that one remembers as being a complete, absorbing reading experience. Your Face Tomorrow is certainly that. If you've already read it, or are in the process of doing so, you can find the online group's discussion here (scroll to the last entry and work your way back). I have to say that I really enjoyed the experience of tackling this long novel online with a bunch of intelligent, perceptive readers and a co-ordinator who provided a lot of background material and even the chance to pose questions to the translator. This is an ideal forum to engage with a book if you're not a member of a book club.

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