Volume III --- Poison,
Shadow and Farewell
Margaret Jull Costa,
(New Directions)On my recommendation, a good friend of mine tried to get through an earlier novel of Javier Marías, When I Was Mortal. At page thirty or so, she threw the book across the room. But not hard enough to damage it: she had to return it bowed but unbroken to the Boulder County Library.
Such is the reaction of some readers to Marías. For he does go on, not unlike Marcel Proust, Henry James. A single thought can take pages to lollygag about, filled with commas, dashes, semicolons, quotes, unquotes, endless spiralings ... to the delight of some readers, to the disgust of others, see, I'm already beginning to write like him, the fault no doubt of this meandering, gadabout Volume III of Marías' recent trilogy.
One noodle that went on for seventy-five pages or so concerned itself with questions of asking favors of others --- the risks, rewards and vocabulary involved in procuring these favors; the cloudy speculation that centers on the seduction of women in general and Pérez Nuiz in specific --- she and Jaime work together at the British version of the CIA or NSA; she wants him to spy on another character named, I swear, Vanni Incompra; Nuiz, by the way, spelled slightly differently, means "nuts."
There is then an extended ramble on names, on the various names of our hero (Jaime, James, Jacobo, Jack Deza --- of which, Marías tells us,
I unintentionally pronounced the "z" as a Spaniard would, having got used to doing so again while in Spain, it would have sounded like 'Daetha' or 'Deatha' to an English ear.)
Deatha. Ah ... so.
There are asides on patriotism ("La patria es la patria" --- roughly translated: "The homeland is the homeland"); the function of belief (in self, in others); "the situation of sexual imminence" (a seduction which is treated as if it never happened); and the droll concept, which appears repeatedly in Marías' novels, of ge-bryd-guma, "the relationship or kinship acquired by two or more men" who had
lain or slept with the same woman, even if this had happened at different times and with the different faces worn by that woman in her lifetime, her face of yesterday or today or tomorrow.
Marías being Marías then gives us a three page rumble or ramble about this ge-bryd-guma, which includes a possible etymology ("co-fornicate"), possible relationships with those who came before, so to speak, or even afterwards ("the former is in a slightly more advantageous position, because he can hear and find out things from the latter, but he is also the one most at risk of contagion if there's any disease involved"), and the chance that there are other influences involved, for we never truly know where we get "the ideas and beliefs that shape us,"
it's incredible how much people say, how much they discuss and recount and write down, this is a wearisome world of ceaseless transmission.
§ § §
O Marías --- spinning out the ideas and concepts and thoughts and feelings and, soon enough some of us begin to try to write and talk and think as he does, and in the process, he sometimes comes up with pure tabarra (he defines it as "dross"), and at other times pure gold.
Like this thought, one I once had myself (how nice to see it in print), the concept of Contrary Laws ... civil and criminal laws that are passed by legislatures, enforced by executives, upheld by courts: laws set in place to gum us all up.
These are laws which serve little real purpose, but are set out there like fine lines, to catch those who would not otherwise be caught in the claws of the State:
The State needs treachery, venality, deceit, crime, illegal acts, conspiracy, dirty tricks (on the other hand, it needs very few acts of heroism, or only now and then, to provide a contrast.)
"Why do you think new offenses are constantly being created? What wasn't an offense becomes one, so that no one is ever entirely clean. Why do you think we intervene in and regulate everything, even where it's unnecessary or where it doesn't concern us?"
We need laws to be violated and broken. What would be the point of having laws if everyone obeyed them? We'd never get anywhere. We couldn't exist. The State needs infractions, even children know that, although they don't know that they know.
Jaime (or Deatha) find himself thinking this as he is watching a video that has come into his hands, taken by a hidden camera, of "two guys with gray hair and reddish skin lying on a bed in their underpants, sniffing cocaine:"
drugs really provide a lot of material, perhaps that's why no government wants to legalize them, it would mean reducing the number of possible offenses.
An excellent reason for countries to continue to label the use of drugs as a major offense, one that allows the law to be draconian, to add --- in the case of the United States --- 750,000 new prisoners a year to our already full-to-bursting penal system, creating evil which may not be all that evil, just to keep the lumpenproletariat in line.
Marías loves such ideas, has such fun with them that he cannot let them go, lets them pop up again and again: for example, strewing about this verbal lawn a name of one of his previous novels, like Tomorrow In the Battle Think on Me. Perhaps he realizes, as most critics do, that this was and is his best novel by far. It utilizes a famous line from Shakespeare's Richard III:
Richard, thy wife, that wretched Anne thy wife, that never slept a quiet hour with thee, now fills thy sleep with perturbations: Tomorrow in the battle think on me, and fall thy edgeless sword: despair and die!
§ § §
So what do we do with Marías. Me? I read him not despite but because he is so discursive, rich with thoughts always poofing along, one thing after another ... ideas sprawling over the page, and scrolling onto the next, filled with a busywork that on occasion can get the reader quite worked up: Is our hero going to or not going to seduce Pérez Nuiz? (seventy-seven pages).
Or, in Madrid, when he finds his ex-wife hanging out with a brute named Esteban Custardoy (a man who likes beating up women). Is "Deatha" going to kill him? (135 pages). Then, in a refreshing change of pace, there comes an occasional quick poetical flash. For instance, this, at (a relief!) no more than half a page, being a quote from the 19th Century poet and essayist, Heinrich Heine.
Heine was writing about the gods, now passed by: "The poet sees a bank of white clouds in the middle of the night and these seem to him, as he puts it, like 'colossal statues of the gods made out of luminous marble.'"
He realizes that they are the gods ... grown old and at the mercy of the elements, cast down and numb with cold in their exile.
"They are the gods of Hellas, the very gods who once so blithely ruled the world, but who now, supplanted and deceased, ride like giant specters the clouds of midnight."
§ § §
If you like literary puzzles --- and Marías' books are packed full of them --- then Your Face Tomorrow: Volume III will be your meat, with its moments that Marías turns to molasses, carrying us through with the cloud of language stretched to its furthermost limits; ideas that can then be turned around and shrunk to a sweet pearl. As with Jack Deza's "deposed ... gray-haired father," having just reminded us of this fate of the gods, who are
Walking into the mist that the wind drives away, or into that exile in which one has to leave even one's own first name behind.--- A. W. AllworthyGo to a review of
Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me