IDENTITY IS BASED ON A PARADOX. Though we carry immense histories — what Javier Marías calls “probabilities in our veins” — we can only truly know ourselves in the present. We build a self out of a past that exists as a series of stories, but we rarely stop to observe who we are in the moment. We tend to only do so at moments of great stress, and such moments are nodes into which Marías, perhaps the greatest writer working in Spanish, has peered to discover what it means to be a human.
In Marías’s work the discoveries come in three flavors. If they are sudden (a bar fight, for instance) they are ahistorical, reducing us from complex individuals with idiosyncratic histories and thick cultural milieus to flasks of reflexes. At other times (say your nation is at war) the submerged currents of history and culture come to the surface and reveal the grip they hold on our personalities. And finally, the most fraught instances occur when we tell stories about ourselves under duress and thus speak identity into being.
Marías’s ever-broadening set of narratives explores the meandering paths of these moments. He ponders: why these, and not others? How do we choose which moments constitute us — or how do they choose us — and how do we then build ourselves around them? With maximalist zeal and digressive sentences, Marías flays every last thought that goes into building identity’s superstructure while dragging his protagonists through plots that are immaculately paced and studded with one showstopper after another. His people are often intellectual loners, content on the sidelines. They are not obsessed with memory but are nonetheless dragged into their personal inquiries by exterior forces. They are almost always multicultural in the sense that they spend time outside their home nations and are comfortable in a variety of European lifestyles (of which Marías is a gifted observer).
Their adventures give Marías frequent opportunities to indulge his many fascinations: the roots of words, the long histories embedded in everyday things, the names of streets, incidental statuary, minor traditions, and overlooked works of art. To read him is to watch the various versions of European history commingle in the interactions of daily life. This is all to his point — he obsessively demonstrates how this vast “dark back of time” becomes transfigured within us. For Marías, our cultural and personal histories are never inert. No matter how distant, they are always ready to spring up into our thoughts and actions. He shows that these supposedly separate phenomena are us, much more than we realize or care to admit.
It’s uncommon to find an author who engages culture, history, and identity with Marías’s skill and depth. But what makes his fiction noteworthy is that he considers two things that are of great contemporary relevance: the lack of an agreed-upon moral authority and the unprecedented abundance of information. These things are related in a neat exchange: We have given up our moral arbiters, and in return we have received information. The loss of authority that comes with the decline of God and State gives us license to follow our tastes wherever they lead without rebuke, taboo, or punishment. Virtually any taste can be turned into a pursuit (all hail the interdisciplinary studies degree) and a libertarian streak borne of being left alone from all intrusion has captivated a substantial fraction of the American population. While these opportunities may give us great power to define our lives, the void left by this absence of authority is fraught with danger.
Marías’ characters long for order. They are cynics who no longer respect liberal democracy’s claims on morality, and they hold even less hope for spirituality. (One combs through Marías’ fiction in vain for a good word about either God or politicians.) Aware of the moral vacuum, these characters can only denounce the ascendancy that personal freedom has achieved in Western culture. In a swank nightclub, for instance, one of Marías’ characters relentlessly mocks a well-to-do young man who dresses up like a gangsta rapper and adopts a flagrantly macho persona. The irritated scold doesn’t argue with the reason behind the getup — to score an attractive woman — but he detests the loss of dignity implicit in the costume and the behavior it requires. Marías’s characters long for a force that will instill some rules of behavior, wanting decency and good sense more than anything else. But, aware of the behaviors instilled by fascism, they shrink from the imposition of morals and generally limit their rebuttals to seething in private.
For all their doubts about the privatization of identity, Marías’ characters love information. They spend their days in archives, teasing out the histories of obscure individuals; they revel in the sensuality of artifacts. Aware of how little is remembered and how much is forgotten, they recoil from the idea that a life’s conclusion is its only verdict, yet struggle to find a substitute way to give it meaning. They relish the arbitrariness of events, their rampant imaginations create counter-stories that exist side-by-side with the actual story, and as the false stories pile up, they attain the force of theme, motif, or even fact.
By taking up questions of history, memory, and selfhood in modern times, Marías has placed himself within one of the more fruitful braches of contemporary literature. He shares with his peers — among them J.M. Coetzee, W.G. Sebald, and even David Foster Wallace (though one shudders to think what Marías would make of his antics) — an interest in understanding society’s prodigious flood of information. His books recall the practice of literary criticism known as New Historicism, which attempts to subvert ascendant historical narratives by democratizing every bit of data available in the archive of Western history; the obsessive readings of obscure individuals and artifacts resonate with the freewheeling, minute investigations that Marías’ characters frequently make.
He has much in common with W.G. Sebald, as they both attempt to develop new logics to comprehend the grand sweep of Western history and make it pertinent to questions of personal identity. Dismissing the supposed objectivity and rigor of academia, both men try a more idiosyncratic, personal approach, using at times superficial similarities and whimsical chains of logic to construct their own versions of events. The links in fact run much deeper: They admired one another’s work, and a lithograph of Marías’ eyes can be found in Sebald’s Unrecounted, a book of poems juxtaposed with images of eyes.
But there are significant differences. Sebald embraces the global, while Marías stays trained on Western Europe (even Poland and the Czech Republic begin to feel fuzzy in their distance); Sebald rarely repeats himself, while Marías obsessively re-maps incidents and phrases; and they have very different approaches to fascism — for Sebald, a German born to parents who participated in the Nazi era, the Holocaust is at the center of everything. For Marías, by contrast, the place of infamy is the Spanish Civil War.
In Marías’s novels, the thing that saves his characters from estrangement is connection, yet Marías is nothing if not wary of connection. He begins the massive, three-volume novel, Your Face Tomorrow, by having the protagonist, Jacobo Deza, deliver a 17-page invocation against ever saying anything to anyone for any purpose. (He then defies the injunction for more than 1,100 pages.) Deza equates the abyss of amnesia with safety, “almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion,” and then goes on to declare that any exit from silence is “a granting of trust” that is almost certain to be “sooner or later betrayed.” He concludes (and repeats again and again throughout the book), “to fall silent, yes, silent, is the great ambition that no one achieves not even after death.” Marías reminds us why all people should aspire to silence: When we start something, we cannot know where it will end, and thus even something as seemingly innocent as an overheard story might be the building block of pathology. It is a theme that Marías obsesses over in his books. What kinds of morality can exist in such a world where the next person you talk to might change your life? Is silence the only honorable, and safe, choice? Or is this a form of cowardice that invites fascism, a scourge that is never far from Marías’s mind?
It is clear that Your Face Tomorrow treats the creation of the self as a dangerous pursuit that requires personal risk. Thus it’s no surprise to find Deza frequently asking himself why he stepped out from the bliss of ignorance, and what he gained. His descent begins when his friend Wheeler, an elderly Brit who has a shadowy past as a black op in World War II, pushes him into a job with a British intelligence agency. The job is to be an “interpreter” of individuals, a role that only a few gifted observers can take on. Functioning as something between a judge and an author, Deza is shown interviews with people of interest to the British government, whom he then “interprets” by assessing traits such as reliability, sincerity, and trustworthiness. It is Deza’s hugely presumptive task to assign moralities and identities to other humans — in effect, to declare what “their face tomorrow” will be. This information, Deza learns, can end up being the cause of death and mayhem.
In giving Deza the role of interpreter, Marías creates a simulacrum of a morality that existed during the wars of the 1930s and 1940s. Once Deza becomes an interpreter, Wheeler reveals that he participated in a World War II misinformation campaign that created identities for Germans, much as Deza now creates them at the behest of the British government. The key difference is that Deza is kept ignorant of the consequences of his work, while Wheeler knew that his actions meant the death of those he monitored. Then, as now, the question is about what right a person has to intervene in the life of another. Deza’s dictum, “don’t talk,” is at one pole; Wheeler’s guiltless mayhem at the other.
As Deza’s sense of self emerges, we see Marías’s theory of subjectivity: we remain constantly at the whim of life — the self is constructed socially or not at all. Estranged from his wife and in a foreign land, Deza begins as a complete loner, his stasis evoked. Late in the novel’s first volume, he ruefully accepts the verdict of a report someone has written on him: “he knows he doesn’t understand himself and that he never will.” All too true, the words continue to echo in his thoughts, striking more and more discordant notes. By the end of Your Face Tomorrow, Deza is a man of action who puzzles over and tries to justify what he has become with a near obsession, a perhaps misplaced obsession, since his transformation is hardly through his own agency. Marías’s plotting flows on so inexorably that one feels Deza never had a real choice.
In the two pivotal, extended, fractured dialogues that seed the first and third volumes of Your Face Tomorrow, Wheeler reveals secrets from his past that become touchstones for the man Deza becomes. But Deza only learns them near the end of Wheeler’s life, so the essentially fraught nature of conversation is underscored — the flow of talk very rarely permits second chances — and Deza’s breath quickens when he realizes that Wheeler might never have told him. And then what would have happened? Talk is a necessary, if unreliable, tool because certain truths can only be told. Talk’s irredeemably absurd nature and its power are illustrated in Your Face Tomorrow when Marías reproduces propaganda posters used to spread the fear that idle talk could inadvertently reveal military secrets. The idea that a common individual’s words could have such power is revelatory, as is the idea that a person could wield this power without knowing it.
The ghastly conclusion is that a government might claim the right to silence an individual, much as Deza claims his right to silence himself. This safe, static silence is abhorrent to Marías. To him conversation is as natural as air; it is an essential, egalitarian activity. In the words of Wheeler, it is “what most defines and unites us … the wheel that moves the world.” It is the one pleasure we all may enjoy in equal measure, a commonality that binds us in our shared humanity as creators of our world. As Marías writes at the beginning of his autobiographical novel Dark Back of Time, “I believe I’ve never mistaken fiction for reality, though I have mixed them together more than once, as everybody does, not only novelists or writers but everyone who has recounted anything since the time we know began, and no one in that known time has done anything but tell and tell.” In effect, Marías is arguing for the conversation’s immense importance to civilization — that we collectively breathe the fabric of reality into reality through fictions we tell as truths. Talk is fragile, can be misinterpreted, can be put to malign uses; it is subject to our moods and whims. But if we do not speak, our thoughts die with us.
Conversation is of huge importance to Marías’s sense of how we construct the self, but it is not the only thing. In his books, Marías reveals himself as a lover of obscure objects, and, recalling Sebald, he relishes the sensations that such objects can bestow upon us — “that feeling of temporal vertigo or of time annihilated that is provoked,” as he puts it in All Souls (1989), “by holding in one’s hands objects that still speak in muffled tones of their past.” This vertigo occurs in Your Face Tomorrow in two key incidents. In the first, Deza watches as a defenseless man is threatened with a sword — an archaic weapon whose terrible power he never before recognized. In the second, Deza comes to a new understanding of Spanish fascism as he extorts a man with a gun once used during the Franco era. At these moments, Deza enters into a primordial state; the sword arouses pure terror, the gun pure power. They inspire in him arcing strings of thoughts that are drawn from the history of Western Europe and that collapse together as he experiences them. Not knowing these objects’ true histories, he rushes to fill the vacuum with his erudition, effectively constructing histories that fuse with the visceral emotions he feels when the objects are brought directly into his life. Deza turns the sword and the gun into leitmotifs, blending them with the lessons he draws from conversation.
Conversation and objects come to embody two distinct ways in which history lives from generation to generation, notably resembling Judeo-Christian ritual, itself a powerful way of building identity and transmitting cultural information. When they tell Deza about their histories, Wheeler and Deza’s father perform their self-images, and the quasi-religious nature of these experiences is not coincidental. “Anyone can relate an anecdote about something that happened,” Marias writes in Dark Back of Time. “And the simple fact of saying it already distorts and twists it, language can’t reproduce events and shouldn’t attempt to, and that, I imagine, is why during some trials — the trials in movies, anyway, the ones I know best — the implicated parties are asked to perform a material or physical reconstruction of what happened.”
This use of people and relics is crucial for Marías as he exposes the shortcoming of a history that exists solely on the page. One recurring character in Your Face Tomorrow, an Elton John-like musician nicknamed “Dearlove,” who, knowing he is past his prime, grandiosely bemoans the fact that his fans are dying off like victims of some cruel “curse.” But as much as Dearlove detests this fate, he fears even more being remembered for an infamous act. This idea recurs throughout the book as something called “the Kennedy-Mansfield syndrome,” the name deriving from President John F. Kennedy and actress Jayne Mansfield, both of whom Deza argues died in such a way that their deaths effaced their lives from cultural memory. This “biographical horror,” as Deza calls it, is that a death beyond their control has extinguished their existence in a deeper and more permanent way than even anonymity. They have been replaced by an imposter, a false self whose arbitrary death is lodged in historical memory. Thus the very beautiful and vivacious Jayne Mansfield, a colorful starlet who used her extraordinary breasts to inspire envy and lust, becomes in death a severed head whose wig has been detached.
By human standards, judging a life from just one moment, even a death, can only be a lie. In All Souls, minor character named Will is a 90-year-old whose senility has turned him into a sort of time traveler: “Will literally did not know what day it was and spent each morning in a different year, travelling backwards and forwards in time according to his desires. … For him it really was 1947 or 1914 or 1935 or 1960 or 1926 or any other year of his extremely long life.” Will’s outer existence as an elderly doorman is in contrast to the rich identity he experiences in his mind — he is a living rebuttal to the K-M syndrome. His time traveling foreshadows the structure of All Souls, as well as that of Your Face Tomorrow and several of Marías’ mature novels. Rather than conclude with a definitive statement on character, these books present a fractured view, a more accurate, contemporary view of our means of self-comprehension — Marías says as much when he contrasts it with the nineteenth-century idea of an omniscient deity watching over us every moment and presiding over a final Judgment Day. Though the deity might have been an “enormous solace to utter solitude,” it is nonetheless “certainly not very human, relying too much on the succession or order of words, deeds, omissions, and thoughts.”
Marías suggests that human connections are our surest defense against the Kennedy-Mansfield syndrome, even as he continually reminds us of their fragility. One of the many potent images to which Deza obsessively returns is a drop of blood he cleans from a floor. Deza imagines that after washing the stain from the wood it is as though the blood never existed, and he imagines that in time he may come to question his very memory of it. Marías links this personal amnesia with events from history that have fallen out of usage. The upshot is a stringent paradox. Though we only experience life in the present, we cannot know what incidents will become meaningful until we encounter them in retrospect.
Deza is fortunate in that he has elders to guide him. The presence of Wheeler and his father allows Your Face Tomorrow to end on a relatively satisfying note, quite unlike the unresolved plots that simply peter out in All Souls and Dark Back of Time. Marías has no illusions. He knows that for every Wheeler who has a Deza to perpetuate his history, there are scores who do not. Perhaps this is why Deza decides to speak, despite his reservations. If there is anything his strange adventure makes him understand, it is that without individuals willing to tell their stories and the stories of others, there would be no human history. It is this history that redeems Deza throughout his adventure. With it he sublimates his loneliness and forges a lexicon with which to comprehend self and world. Marías emerges as a clear-eyed advocate of authentic communication. His books, exemplified by Your Face Tomorrow, offer satisfying looks into the machinery of human interaction and its impact on the individual self.
There is one final form of address in the world of Marías’s novels, one that precedes both speech and culture — desire, evoked again and again in Marías’s almost exclusively male narrators’ lust for beautiful women. Marías’s men are great appreciators of the pleasures of the fairer sex; their delight in the refinement of art is often matched by a few kind words for a cherished breast or thigh. There is also a great deal of sex in Marías’s novels, though it is often bizarre, commonly adulterous, and almost never without consequences. As Marías portrays it, desire is a submerged, obscure force — something more felt than understood, encoded in our DNA — that impels his men to do uncalled-for things. It tells us that no matter how we map it through linguistic theory and historical study, there is that part of ourselves — perhaps the part where the soul resides — that remains cut off. It calls for an understanding that cannot be completely diagrammed within Marías’ elegant and immaculate sentences. It is the part of us that Marías calls “dance and dream,” the most literary aspect of ourselves, the part only writers of Marías’ stature can begin to reveal.