One starts Your Face Tomorrow filled with foreboding. How else to read the opening segment, a section that lets us know that everything we will read in this book has all been said and done, that it has all already happened to our protagonist, one Jacobo Deza (or Jacques, or Jaime, or . . . like Deza, so many characters in this book have multiple names). Moreover, the book begins with Deza telling us that, knowing what he knows now, he rues the act of opening one’s mouth. And then, were that not enough, the opening section ends on a particularly melancholy note: the narrator evokes the experience of the elderly, who feel their remaining time like “slippery” snow “sliding from their shoulders.” It is an image evoked by a man who has witnessed a catastrophe that has left him old before his time and feeling helpless.
This opening section warns about the dire consequences of loose talk, and volume one goes on to talk about two of the most significant examples in 20th-century European history where loose talk had the potential for mayhem. Those would be the Spanish Civil War, where we are told a word in the wrong direction would lead to an execution, and World War II in Britain, where we witness a nationwide campaign to instill into citizens the fear that loose lips could lead to battlefield deaths.
There is also the great personal risk one runs by talking: one’s words can be appropriated and used to any end so desired by other people. At more than one point Deza tells us that the great ambition of all people is to efface themselves from this earth, but this is impossible, as we all speak and we all leave traces. Yet in volume 1 we also hear the sentiment–powerfully expressed–that most talk is a complete waste of time. How to square these two views?
Volume one also casts Deza in a curious job for a man so aware of the consequences of speaking: listener, and then, creator of realities through the simple act of speech. First Deza listens to people say things, and then he is given the privilege of determining who they are, that is, he gets to give reports to a powerful mysterious employer who will se them for who knows what ends.
It is an immense power granted to Deza, and what makes it even more immense is that Deza is not just listening to anybody; he is listening to the wealthy, the powerful, and the potentially dangerous. He is rendering verdicts on these people–in effect, he is creating interpretations of their personality that have the weight of truth–though he is not permitted to know why he is giving these verdicts, nor what use, if any, they will be put to. This seems like the setup to a great tragedy, something almost Faustian: a man with the great power to know other people intimately just through a single conversation, yet also a man who will never be able to confirm if this great power that he is told he has is actually real, or if he is just spinning stories that have no basis in actual fact. Powerful or weak, wise or pompous? I suspect we will begin to find out in volume two.
And then there is the odd historical angle to volume 1. The relationship between Britain and Spain is perhaps not a relationship that many of the great 20th-century writers have paid much regard, but it is inscribed everywhere in volume one. Deza’s good friend Wheeler, the man who gets him mixed up in this business of telling lives, was a British operative in Spain during the Civil War, and his work there seems to have left a great impact on him. He is a devoted Hispanist, he speaks Spanish fluently and breaks into colloquialisms that only a speaker who is very familiar with the language would know. Likewise, Deza’s new employer in this business, Tupra, seems to have one foot in Britain and one foot somewhere else on the European continent. We witness firsthand a budding member of Spain’s kleptocracy making an ass of himself at a British party, Deza’s coworker, the beautiful Perez Nuix (whom it seems we will almost certainly hear more about), is half Spanish, half British.
Beyond characters, volume one is scarred by the memories of Britain’s and Spain’s mixed past; it has the feel of a book that is reckoning with the legacy that the great political strife of Europe in the 20th century has left on each nation, as well as the cultural sediment left behind by the things the populations of each were forced to accept because of politics. To no small extent Deza’s job–the wellspring, it seems, of the whole series of events that makes this story worth telling–is built on institutions that were built during the wars against fascism in Europe.
How does Deza’s work relate to this legacy, why does his friend Wheeler seem so intent on having him take it up? Marias is invoking matters of huge moral weight, historical questions of great responsibilities that have guided the destiny of nations; he is invoking them and insinuating Deza’s job with their gravity, yet he never quite tells us that Deza’s work is in fact this weighty, in a geo-political sense. However, it is completely clear that Deza’s work will be hugely important for his personal sense of morality, his personal destiny. Yet in volume 1, to take on Marias’ parlance, the point of the spear has pierced, and Deza is beginning to make his own fever.
And lastly, how does Deza’s work relate to Deza? Will this man ever attain self-knowledge, or can he, believing what he believes? I keep coming back to two quotes, the first: “How can I not know 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?” It is perhaps a question Deza asks himself. And then from a report Deza happens to find about himself: “He knows he doesn’t understand himself and that he never will. And so he doesn’t waste his time trying to do so. I don’t think he’s dangerous. But he is to be feared.”
Perhaps, as we move into volume 2, these words will begin to sound more prophetic.