With the publication last year of Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear, the first volume of a trilogy and his eighth translated work of fiction, it was plain that Javier Marías was embarking on a project which required readers to leave behind all conventional ideas of what a novel is. At one point in the book the narrator cleans up a drop of blood. On the last page, someone rings his doorbell. There are no other events. But for patient readers with a speculative cast of mind and a taste for stylistic adventure it seemed to be a work of genius.
The second volume, Dance and Dream, confirms this. Jacques Deza is a Spaniard living in London. Because of his acute powers of insight into other people, he has been taken on by a mysterious MI6- like agency to evaluate other people. The narrative, if you can call it that, deals briefly with the visitor and then follows Deza to a nightclub with his boss, Bertram Tupra, and a client, where a shocking event occurs. That’s all. Except it isn’t, because what interests Marías is not the events themselves but how they can be predicted, or how any event or action can be predicted from a shrewd understanding of a person. How can you know how someone will behave? In the first volume he explored this through different kinds of secrecy and lies, relating in particular to the Spanish Civil War and the murder of Andreu Nin. The new volume picks up on these themes but extends further to illuminate the ways in which causal chains bind people, or remain latent within them. ‘They carry their probabilities within their veins, and time, temptation and circumstance will lead them at last to their fulfilment.’ ‘And even if there are things of which no one speaks, even if they do not happen, they never stay still.’
Marías’s writing is highly self-referential. The narrator refers on countless occasions to events and remarks from the previous volume, and from other Marías novels. (Deza originates from his first translated novel, All Souls.) Early in Dance and Dream we read, ‘Every action carries within itself its own prolongation and every phrase leaves a thread hanging in the air, a thread that can never be cut without something else becoming sticky too.’ The sentence is repeated later on and it would not be out of place in any of his novels, notably The Dark Back of Time, whose title also appears as a phrase in this one. Marías uses extraordinarily long sentences that appear to repeat themselves and then, when you look closer, do not: at the end, you are in a different place from where you set out. All this makes his work, especially his new novel, rather inaccessible to a reader who is not already on board his project. But it contributes to the astonishing sense that Marías conveys through his fiction of following the workings of a mind. His style is not separate from his intricate unravellings, but essential to them.
In a work that is so nakedly to do with interpreting human beings, it is no surprise to find questions about language and translation popping up. It must therefore be said that Margaret Jull Costa has, once again, performed a kind of miracle in rendering this book into an English form that manages to dip back and forth to Spanish words without any sign of compromise. As with Proust and Nabokov, you feel that Marías’s mind goes effortlessly to places where most of us rarely travel. It is thrilling to see what he brings back from there. Or, as Deza’s father says, ‘The really interesting and difficult thing is to continue thinking and to continue looking when you have the feeling that there is no more to think and no more to see, that to continue would be a waste of time. In that wasted time lies the truly important.’