No Name or Too Many? On Javier Marías
That's the Oxford part. But in the years between All Souls and the start of the new novel's action, Deza has returned to Spain, gotten married (to a woman named Luisa, of course), fathered two children and—this is why he's back in England—separated from his wife. While All Souls had adumbrated some of this material (the wife, the first child), large areas of shadow continue to lie on Deza's story. We never learn very much about what he did for all these years, or how he managed to estrange his wife. But when he returns to Madrid, late in the novel, to see what's become of the home he has left, he finds that she has taken up with none other than Custardoy the Younger, the art forger, from A Heart So White.
In other words, the novel bridges the two halves of Marías's imagination, the English half and the Spanish half, writes Oxford and Luisa/Custardoy into a single narrative. Indeed, the movement from one side to the other—call it translation or translocation—becomes a governing principle. Deza's name is Jacques—except when it is not. Sometimes it is Jacobo, or Jaime, or Jack. It depends where he is, and who's talking to him, and in what language. The novel shuttles not only between England and Spain, Spanish Oxonians and English Hispanists, but also between English and Spanish; it seems at times to be written in both languages at once and certainly makes the traffic between the two a constant point of reflection. To take one charged and recurrent example:
He was lucky—in a way—that there is no one-word English equivalent for the unequivocal 'patria' of my own language (or only highly recondite, theoretical ones): the word he had used, 'country,' means different things depending on the context, but is less emotive and less pompous and should almost always be translated as 'país.'
That we in this país are likely to read the novel in English only adds another layer of complexity. What marvels the great translator Margaret Jull Costa must have had to perform to replot these transpositions in an inconspicuous way I do not know, but with the story's abundance of (implicitly) English dialogue, the novel's bilingualism places us in the curious position of being often more privileged, in a sense, than its original audience.
As the narrative opens, Wheeler recruits Deza for a strange and secretive intelligence group that, the protagonist eventually learns, has been in operation since the War. Headed at present by a man named Tupra, the group is simply asked to observe people—in interviews or on videotape—and analyze their character. What kind of people? Anyone the government (or at least Tupra, who seems to have motives of his own) is interested in: foreign operatives, organized criminals, politicians and pop stars, even members of the royal family. But "analysis" is not the word that Deza puts on their activities. Instead, he tells us, his job is to "interpret" people, to "translate" them—a literary rather than a scientific task. Tupra wants to know not only who these people are but what they might be capable of: what their face might be tomorrow. Deza and his colleagues—all of whom have been selected for their special powers of insight, their rare ability, as Wheeler puts it, to resist the temptation to deny what's right in front of our eyes—are asked, in effect, to produce scenarios. Could this man ever kill? Under what circumstances? How? Uncertainty is not tolerated; "perhaps" earns Tupra's contempt. And so, at first quite guiltily but quickly forgetting his guilt, Deza learns to spin his stories with an air of perfect confidence, claiming to understand complete strangers better than they know themselves.
This is all, needless to say, an inventive if ostentatiously contrived extended metaphor for the novelistic act. The writer as reader of character, yes, but also as fabulator, bluffer, fraud. "Translate" is apt, for translation, too, is a kind of fraudulence or forgery, a copy that claims to stand for the original—just like the work that Custardoy produces. Deza himself is obsessed with authenticity, specifically, like any true Anglophile, with the question of who is authentically English. Wheeler and Rylands are "bogus Englishmen" because they were born in New Zealand. As for Tupra—who goes under any number of aliases, a name-shifter like Wheeler or Deza himself—who knows, with a moniker like that, where he came from?
It's a matter, at bottom, of character. What does it mean to be authentically yourself? Who are the people in our lives—who are they really—and who are we ourselves? Unbeknown to Marías at the time he wrote All Souls—and this may have been the revelation that hurt him into the new novel—the gentle and benevolent Sir Peter Russell turned out to have led a very different life before his career at Oxford, working overseas for MI6, and doing who knows what bloody deeds, during the War. Tupra likes to tease Deza by calling him Iago, the classical form of his name, but after learning more about his own capacity for violence than he ever wanted to know, the protagonist adopts that famous villain's famous line: "I am not what I am."
The novelist as forger, but also as outsider. (Two related ideas, for the foreigner, the expatriate, is always, with respect to his adopted culture, an imposter.) Deza is frequently asked to observe the group's interviews from behind a two-way mirror in a little booth whose benches run, awkwardly enough, perpendicular to the opening, "with the inevitable feeling that one was looking out of a train window." The effect is standard Marías: his narrators are almost always watchers, observing life rather than participating in it. Deza himself is an outsider, a watcher, at least four times over: at work, in England, in the family from which he has been exiled (and which he thinks about constantly) and even in his neighborhood. He lives alone, sees almost no one and passes his time staring out the window at a neighbor across the square, a man who spends his evenings dancing around his apartment in joyful absorption—a recurrent figure for everything that Deza (and implicitly the novelist) is not.
While the protagonist quotes Iago, he also quotes Prufrock: "'Do I dare?' and, 'Do I dare?'" Will the man of words remain a watcher, or will he take the moral risk of entering the arena of action? If T.S. Eliot is here, so is Cervantes, quoted with equal frequency, creator of a bookish hero who sallies forth in boots and spurs. Arms versus arts: that was the Renaissance talking point, action versus contemplation. Violence is rare in Your Face Tomorrow, but it is sudden and brutal, and the phallic weaponry invariably employed gestures back at Don Quixote and his lance: the sword that Tupra brandishes, in the novel's central episode, to terrify a harmless fool; the spear with which a dissolute celebrity disposes of an inconvenient lover; the iron poker Deza takes to Custardoy at the climax of the story, doing bitter business at last; even Wheeler's walking stick, a geriatric memory of the weapons, metaphoric or otherwise, he once wielded.
This tension between action and reflection, this Prufrockian withdrawal, is enacted in the very texture of the novel's prose. Deza's style—or Marías's, really, since it appears throughout his work—is one of almost endless rumination: assertions and expansions, examples and exceptions, detours, digressions, associations and allusions, a verbal accretion that hangs from every increment of event in long syntactic tendrils:
Then I heard Tupra's commanding voice:
'Stand clear, Jack.' And at the same time, he grabbed my shoulder, firmly but not roughly, and drew me aside, removed me, I mean, from the doorway of that cubicle which was more like a small room, perhaps the same size as those minuscule mausoleums in the cemetery of Os Prazeres, summarily decorated and intended to be welcoming, at once inhabited and uninhabited. 'Stand clear, Jack' were his words, or perhaps 'Clear off' or 'Step aside' or 'Out of my way, Jack,' it's hard to remember exactly something which, subsequently, disappears into nothing because of everything else that comes after, at any rate, I understood what he meant, whatever the phrase he used, that was the sense and it was, moreover, accompanied by that gesture, his firm hand on my shoulder, which allowed itself to be pushed out of the way; viewed positively, the phrase could have been understood as 'Step aside,' more negatively as 'Out of my way, Jack, clear off, don't get involved and don't even think about trying to stop me,' but his tone of voice sounded more like the former, a very gentle voice given that it was issuing an order that brooked no disobedience or delay, no hesitation in its performance, no resistance or questioning or protest or even any show of horror, because it is impossible to object to or to oppose someone who has a sword in his hand and who has already raised it up in order to bring it down hard, to deal a blow, to slice through something, when that is the first time you have seen the sword and have no idea where it came from, a primitive blade, a medieval grip, a Homeric hilt, an archaic tip, the most unnecessary of weapons or the most out of keeping with the times we live in, more even than an arrow and more than a spear...
and so the sentence continues on for another page.