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‘Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Three -- Poison, Shadow and Farewell’ by Javier Marías

“One should never tell anyone anything . . . .”

Thus begins Javier Marías’ “Fever and Spear,” the opening novel in his unconventional spy trilogy “Your Face Tomorrow.” “Telling is almost always done as a gift, even when the story contains and injects some poison . . . and rare is the trust or confidence that is not sooner or later betrayed.”

The narrator is Marías’ nonchalant and discursive alter ego, Jaime Deza, also known as Jacques, Jacobo or Jack, depending on who’s asking.

It is typical of Marías’ work that a name becomes relative to a moment’s perception, or that a story can cause so much damage.

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Now, with the publication of “Poison, Shadow and Farewell,” the third and highly anticipated volume, Marías has concluded one of the most striking works in recent memory, giving us the cap to a philosophical espionage trilogy that could have been written by Henry James or Marcel Proust.

“Your Face Tomorrow” weaves multi-page disquisitions on the Nationalist takeover of Spain, the collapse of the Cold War spy state and 16th century Italian art with moments of revelry involving Ian Fleming, hairnets, armpits, sex and swordplay.

With an elegant, nimble translation by Margaret Jull Costa, the trilogy’s 1,273 pages move right along.

That’s only as it should be, for Marías -- the son of noted Spanish philosopher and vocal anti-Francoist Julián Marías -- is a writer born to language as few are. Having dashed off two novels by age 23, he spent the rest of his 20s translating English novels into Spanish before resuming writing novels of his own.

A meeting of ‘Souls’

His 1989 novel, “All Souls,” is where we first encounter Deza, a teacher at Oxford who embarks on an affair with one of his students and, in the process, digs into the life and work of the British poet John Gawsworth. The book was received as a thinly disguised university tell-all (Marías too was teaching at Oxford), but this was not the intent. Marías was so surprised at his readers’ confusing reality with fiction that he went back and wrote another book, 1998’s “Dark Back of Time,” as an explanation.

To be sure, we can make a safe assumption that Marías is not a spy, but that is the world Deza inhabits in “Fever and Spear,” the first book in the “Tomorrow” trilogy.

Much time has passed since “All Souls,” and Deza is living in London, estranged from his wife, Louisa, and their children in Madrid.

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He is offered a job by his old Oxford mentor Peter Wheeler to work as a translator for an unnamed intelligence organization that specializes in behavioral reconnaissance. Under the steely gaze of Bertram Tupra, Deza is counted on to predict what specific subjects will do in any given situation.

In a “wearisome world of ceaseless transmission,” Deza is all too aware of the consequences. “It’s incredible how much people say, how much they recount and write down. . . . Without even giving it a second thought, we go and we tell.”

Deza continuously flashes back to stories that his father, a writer on the Republican side jailed during the Spanish Civil War, has told him about the horrors of Madrid in the late 1930s -- how information in the wrong hands could turn deadly. It will come as no surprise that Marías’ father suffered the same fate: He was jailed after a friend falsely accused him of writing for Pravda and fraternizing with Communists.

Regardless of his trepidation, Deza becomes quite good at being able to predict “the faces of tomorrow, today.” And yet, in Volume 2, “Dance and Dream,” his confidence backfires during a brief moment in which Tupra pulls a sword on a man and beats him senseless in the bathroom of a trendy Knightsbridge disco.

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Deza finds himself paralyzed with fear and unable to acquit the situation. “You can’t go around beating people up, killing them,” he sputters. “Why not?” is Tupra’s steady reply.

Later that evening, Tupra forces Deza to watch surveillance videos depicting men and women engaged in just the kind of violence that Deza has deemed morally unsuitable. “Perhaps,” Deza wonders, “the way of the world was there in what I had seen . . . and that’s what he’s just poisoned me with.” But how do we react under pressure? Where, precisely, are the boundaries in which we walk, invisibly cloaked, every day?

Dawning awareness

“Poison, Shadow and Farewell” offers its own kind of answer by putting Deza on the offensive. Feeling disgusted with the organization and with himself, he returns to Madrid and his family and discovers that Louisa not only has taken up with a ponytailed artiste but also has a black eye.

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Although she says she “walked into the garage door,” Deza is horrified. The violence of his work, it seems, has followed him home. As he sets out to track down and confront her lover, he will have to square his own volatile emotions against a prediction of his own future.

Marías has indicated that “Your Face Tomorrow” will constitute his final work, but one reaches the end with a bemused smile and the realization that there is little possibility of staunching the inevitable. After all, violence that trails Deza throughout “Poison” is an unavoidable byproduct of the lives we live, and the stories we choose to tell each other. Of course, there is much more to be resolved.

Ducker is a writer living in Washington, D.C.


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