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Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell

Javier Marías is a novelist who requires both the reader's willing surrender and their consistent alertness. These, in a sense, are also the qualities required by his narrator, Jacques Deza, an erudite and cultured Spaniard living in London and working for a clandestine intelligence organisation in, as he frequently remarks, a building with no name. In the previous two volumes of Your Face Tomorrow - this one, the longest, forms the conclusion to a trilogy - Deza has described his recruitment into what the enigmatic Bertram Tupra also refers to as "the group"; and, latterly, a shocking incident at a nightclub in which Tupra, with Deza as his witness and reluctant helpmeet, beats and terrifies a lascivious and buffoonish Spanish diplomat, using a fearsome, double-edged landsknecht sword. Tupra's question to a horrified Deza both concludes the second volume and opens the third: "But why, according to you, can't one do that? Why can't one go around beating up people and killing them?"

If the question sounds straightforward enough, Deza finds his response to be anything but; and, as this novel unfolds, like its predecessors, by means of lengthy, looping digressions, narrative swerves and unexpected interventions from a past both real and imagined, the reader finds himself on similarly unsteady ground. Marías's prose style - unhurried but taut enough never to feel leisurely; self-consciously pedantic, determined to turn over each incident it animates until it can yield no more nuance or information - is both mesmerising and ingeniously frustrating, as if the author had set himself the task of teaching us how to read properly. If his setting is, tangentially, the world of espionage, he is nonetheless a million miles away from the instant gratification of the thriller writer.

Deza (who also features as Jaime, Jacobo and Jack) has been singled out by Tupra (on occasion Reresby, Dundas and Ure) because of his ability to intuit from people's faces and behaviour today what they might be capable of doing tomorrow; whether, for example, an apparently upstanding member of society might be able, in future, to commit acts of treachery, deception or brutality. The use to which Deza's impressions are put - these are constructed like novels, he reflects, or perhaps short biographical studies - is largely unknown, to him and to us, though the general idea is suggested when Tupra shows him a series of explicit films in which prominent figures are caught in hideously compromising situations, often either as witnesses to or perpetrators of extreme violence.

Deza's initial response - one that might form the basis of his reply to Tupra's question - is one of disgust, and a wholesale rejection of his superior's methods. But it is no coincidence that what Deza watches at the nightclub and on the screen is the "poison" of the title, with its implication of contamination and contagion. Shortly afterwards, when Deza believes that his estranged wife, Luisa, is being beaten up by a new boyfriend, his memories of both episodes suggest to him a way, in Tupra's words, to "get rid of the problem". Whether or not Deza is capable of taking on Tupra's qualities - whether violence was ever in his face yesterday, and whether he can persuade himself of the idea that a greater harm will be averted by his actions - is what the novel goes on to explore.

There is much else besides; in addition to the almost jokily lowbrow cultural diversions, Marías also continues his adept weaving of the contemporary narrative into his exhaustively minute and evocative explorations of recent European history and, in particular, the Spanish civil war. But although he frequently makes use of historical sources, even to the point of including facsimile reproductions of documents and photographs, what he is attempting here is something closer to an occult history - a partial, painful understanding of the emotional and psychological effect of war on an entire society and its descendants. Deza's current preoccupations, even at their most domestic, come to seem part of a continuum, of an endless human struggle to balance action against consequence, desire against the risks of its fulfilment, of the complexity of unpicking motive.

Marías's triumph, in a suite of works that stands as one of the most ambitious and original in recent years, is to show us that fiction can derive its power from allowing itself to be profoundly associative and to exist on more than one plane of connotation. It is not surprising that Marías is a translator of Laurence Sterne; rejecting the linear, his writing comes closer to explaining to us the way our memories make a mockery of yesterday and tomorrow, and of how what we think we see in our own faces may be nothing more than a trick of the mirror.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

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SRSLY #13: Take Two

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, the recent BBC adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie, and reminisce about teen movie Shakespeare retelling She’s the Man.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on Audioboom, Stitcher, RSS and  SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The podcast is also on Twitter @srslypod if you’d like to @ us with your appreciation. More info and previous episodes on

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On Macbeth

Ryan Gilbey’s review of Macbeth.

The trailer for the film.

The details about the 2005 Macbeth from the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series.


On Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie

Rachel Cooke’s review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Sarah Hughes on Cider with Rosie, and the BBC’s attempt to create “heritage television for the Downton Abbey age”.


On She’s the Man (and other teen movie Shakespeare retellings)

The trailer for She’s the Man.

The 27 best moments from the film.

Bim Adewunmi’s great piece remembering 10 Things I Hate About You.


Next week:

Anna is reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Your questions:

We loved talking about your recommendations and feedback this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 



See you next week!

PS If you missed #12, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.