YFTS: To Peter Wheeler who may know better

(I’ve asked some of the participants in Your Face This Spring to share some final thoughts about the book to help us wind this project up. First up is Ginny Brewer Pennekamp with some excellent thoughts on the Bond angle to Your Face Tomorrow.)

james bondI began Your Face Tomorrow aware that Javier Marias wrote this book for his heroes–Peter Russell and his father Julian–who taught Marias how to live life but were on the verge of leaving it. Mid-read, John Wooden died, adding a personal shade to this UCLA Bruin’s read. I wondered: what will happen to his teachings? How will the world change? Have we lost a compass on how to make our way in the world?

As I thought about this, I kept coming back to the very big hero looming over Deza’s strange adventure–James Bond. Bond is unequivocally a hero, the best spy ever, the man that saved the world over and over again. Yes, he specialized in incredible violence. Yes, he seduced every woman in his path. But the end justified his means. However, in YFT, James Bond is a hero of the past. The world has changed. MI6 is a different institution. To me, one of the essential themes in this novel is who becomes the James Bond of the modern world, how does he operate and with what responsibilities?

Deza is lured into MI6 by Bond. On the night of his qualification test, Deza finds Fleming’s inscription: “To Peter Wheeler, who may know better” and follows Wheeler where Wheeler followed Fleming, the man who invented Bond. Deza enters MI6 expecting Bond and Fleming’s world but instead is presented with three versions of the modern spy–Tupra, Wheeler, and his own father. Each provides Deza with a different set of choices about his place in the world and his responsibility towards his fellow man.

the spy who loved meTupra is, of course, the most similar to Bond. Like Bond, he is a blunt hammer of justice. He beds multiple women, follows the orders of superiors, keeps quiet about his activities. But unlike Bond, the information Tupra acts on is unclear and sometimes entirely made up. Also unlike Bond, he uses many alias. He is not patriotic–he works for England but also for anyone who pays him. The outcome of Tupra’s work is murky; it’s not clear if he does good or harm. Yet Deza follows Tupra’s lead unquestioningly until Tupra assaults de la Garza in the nightclub, and then we see our first instance of Deza analyzing Tupra’s methods: “You can’t just go around beating people up, killing them.” Deza asks. “But why, according to you, can’t one do that?” Tupra answers [V2 p. 339], seemingly satisfying Deza. After all, like Bond they are attacking a greater evil.

Deza parrots Tupra’s behavior when he returns to Spain, going so far as to check with Tupra before confronting Custardoy. Interestingly enough, in this episode with Custardoy, Deza mimics James Bond in the novel The Spy Who Loved Me, which follows Bond as he defends a woman from a gang of men who threaten to harm her. Deza actually becomes Tupra’s version of the Bond who acts without thinking on the basis of imagined information.

Deza says of the men in Tupra’s video:

. . . perhaps like Perez Nuix, and like Wheeler and Rylands, they don’t hold trials or gather evidence, they simply solve problems or root them out or stop them ever happening or just deal with them. . . . And to guess what will happen if they don’t intervene . . . the sort who make remote decisions for reasons that are barely identifiable to the one who suffers the consequences or is a chance witness, or without waiting for a link of cause and effect to establish itself between actions and motives, still less for any proof that such actions have been committed. Such men and women need no proof . . . they lash out with a saber; indeed on such occasions, they don’t even require the action or events or deeds to have occurred. [V3 p. 361]

In this description, Tupra and his division resemble the America that fabricated the existence of WMDs in Iraq, that increased surveillance on the general public after 9/11, that bullied the world without pausing to make sure that the end goal was just, right or deserved.

Deza initially lumps Wheeler into Tupra’s group because he once worked there, too. But as Deza’s consciousness evolves, he begins to separate Wheeler from the rest of the pack. Like Bond, Wheeler is patriotic, carrying out justified orders of a country in the midst of war, when good and evil are clear. Every mission has a higher purpose towards an end goal. Wheeler explains to Deza:

“Do you imagine that I haven’t committed repugnant acts, things which, if I think about them now or in the future, could perhaps have been avoided? . . . They’re repugnant to me now and will seem more so as time passes, the farther off they get, but they weren’t then.” [V3, p. 512]

Unlike Bond, Wheeler is reluctant to use violence, going as far as to spare a double agent’s life when directly ordered to kill him. He devotes his life to one woman, to study, to the pursuit of truth. This is the Wheeler Fleming knows when he notes he “may know better.” Wheeler’s MI6 was not Bond’s, the methods he used were different. Wheeler distances himself from Tupra’s generation of spy when he says:

“the Americans–who, in part, copied us when it came to subversion techniques and who have reveled in using them ever since (rather clumsily, it must be said)–never learned to apply them as we did, to play it as a game despite the gravity of the situation. Far worse, they didn’t give it up in peacetime.” [V3, p. 475]

In this, Wheeler resembles England’s place in the modern world, led by the American bullies but still thinking of a time when they were in control of the world and presumably were more thoughtful and just.

Wheeler’s distinction between how things were run then and now prompts Deza to resign from the MI6, return to Spain and ultimately follow the example set by his father. Deza Sr. is the complete opposite of Bond and Tupra and prides himself on it:

“But the thing I feel happiest about, Jacobo, is that no one ever died because of something I said or reported. Shooting someone, during a war or in self-defense, is bad, but at least you can go on living and not lose your decency or humanity, not necessarily. However, if someone dies because of something you said or, worse still, invented; if someone dies needlessly because of you; if you could have remained silent and allowed that person to go on living; if you spoke out when you should or could have said nothing and by doing so brought about a death, or several . . .” [V3, p. 401]

Deza, still unaware that he has done exactly what his father condemns, answers:

“That was perhaps how it was before . . . my father still imagines he’s living in a world in which deeds left some trace and which conscience had a voice.” [V3, p. 402]

However, Deza Sr. knows the world has changed. It is only Jaime/Jacobo that has not yet developed a conscience or a voice. Deza Sr. tells Jamie:

“It’s sad watching an era in decline, when one has known other far more intelligent eras. Where’s it going to end?” [V3, p. 398]

British EmpireIn practice, the novel ends with Tupra, the new, corrupted Bond still in charge of keeping the world order. It also ends with Perez Nuix, who becomes Tupra’s successor after Deza deserts the MI6–a spy so out of control that she games the system for her own advantage, sleeps with the enemy without having the courage to look him in the face, finishes without having made any real difference in the world.

According to the book The Man Who Saved Britain by Simon Winder, Bond was invented to give the British the satisfaction that they still controlled the destiny of the world at a time when, for the first time, Britain was no longer the dominant empire. Marias takes this a step further to show us the model of the current spy in this world of fuzzy borders and grey conflicts. We should be responsible for each other. We should rely on facts, we should double check that our actions are just and executed for the right reasons. Deza comes to us this conclusion when he says:

My face will resemble and be assimilated into that of all those men . . . who were once masters of time and who held in their hand the hourglass–in the form of a weapon, in the form of an order–and decided suddenly, without lingering or delaying, to stop time, thus obliging others no loner to desire their own desires and to leave even their own first name behind. I don’t like being linked to those faces.” [V3, p. 374]

Deza chooses to be linked to the face of his father, to not hide from the world but to set a different example for the future. He describes the path of his own journey many times during the course of the novel:

time will see it off, it will be time, time that will cure it–of those who have not yet reached their end and are still groping their way uncertainly forwards or walking lightly with shield and spear, or slowly and wearily with shield all battered and spear blunt and dull, without even realising that we will soon be with them, with those who have been expelled and those who have passed and then . . . then even our sharpest, most sympathetic judgements will be dubbed futile and ingenuous, why did she do that, they will say of you, why so much fuss and why the quickening pulse, why the trembling, why the somersaulting heart; and of me they will say: why did he take those particular steps and why so many? And of us both they will say: why all that conflict and struggle, why did they fight instead of just looking and staying still, why were they unable to meet or to go on seeing each other, and why so much sleep, so many dreams, and why that scratch, my fever, my word, your pain, and all those doubts, all that torment? [V1, p. 185]

Come, come, I was so wrong about you before . . . I just couldn’t see you clearly before. [V3, p. 208]

In the end, as he warned the reader in the very beginning, Deza synthesizes his father and Wheeler’s experience, even tipping his hat a bit to the fictional James Bond:

One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion. [V1, p. 3]

So Deza throws aside Bond for the men “who may know better” and gives us a new example of how to watch over the world.

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