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The Fatal Word, The Confirming Photograph

Fever and Spear, the first volume of Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow is a novel about two parallel and often interchangeable fields of activity: spying, with its concomitant actions of betrayal and deception, and language, with its subsets of translation and digression.  Marias uses the world of spies and spying as a vast, flexible metaphor for literature.  The narrator, a Spaniard named Jacobo Deza, is drawn into this mysterious world because he has a special gift, which is explained to him here by a friend:

Toby told me that he always admired, and, at the same time, feared, the special gift you had for capturing the distinctive and even essential characteristics, both external and internal, of friends and acquaintances, characteristics which they themselves had often not noticed or known about.  Or even people you had only glimpsed or seen in passing, in a meeting or at high table, or whom you’d passed a couple of times in the corridors or on the stairs of the Taylorian without exchanging a single word.

Jacobo’s job becomes to observe and occasionally interview strangers and deliver oral opinions or write reports.

Do you think he would be capable of killing someone?  In some extreme situation, for example, if he felt really threatened?  Or would he be simply incapable of it, would he be the sort who would just give in and allow himself to be knifed to death, rather than get his blow in first?  Or, on the contrary, do you think he could kill, even in cold blood?

When Marias has Jacobo describe his role within the spy industry, Marias might as well be writing a description of his own role as a novelist.

Some of us have been paid…to tell and to hear, to put in order and to recount.  To retain and observe and select.  To wheedle, to embellish, to remember.  To interpret and translate and incite.  To draw out and persuade and distort.

Fever and Spear begins with a seventeen page excursus on the inevitable risks of speech – “treachery, misunderstanding, and chaos” – but for the next 370 pages Jacobo and his two main cohorts simply don’t know how to stop talking.  Marias gives Jacobo a narrative tic: Jacobo can’t just say something once.  He will make a statement, then rephrase it, and then rephrase it again and again.  It’s a kind of sculpting effect that Jacobo uses, perhaps thinking that he’s providing extra shape and clarity to his ideas.  But the net result is to make language more opaque, to distance words from their referents.  In the end, the reader doesn’t seem to know what the narrator believes or what is true.   Jacobo himself  has no idea what becomes of his reports. “They didn’t usually tell me when I had been right and when I had been wrong.”  He has no idea if his special gift is for real of if it is even useful.

If words are “fatal,” as Jacobo declares at one point, he seems to feel very differently about photographs.  Nearly halfway into Fever and Spear, the reader turns the page and suddenly comes face to face with a blurry, full-page photograph of a twenty-something young man.  Suit, tie, pocket foulard, brilliantined hair.  The photograph falls in the midst of a long digression about an event that happened before Jacobo was born.  During the Spanish Civil War, his mother-to-be  has gone off to search for her younger brother, who she fears has been murdered by the militia. Many years after his mother’s death, Jacobo discovers a tin containing some mementos, including two photographs that he presumes are of her brother, who was indeed murdered before he had a chance to become Jacobo’s uncle.  One of the photographs in the tin is a post-mortem photograph, probably taken by the Red Cross to certify the death of the young man.  The other photograph is the one reproduced in the book.   Jacobo spends four pages describing the photographs and his reactions upon finding them.

Upon seeing the post-mortem photograph:

“My first impulse was not to look at it, at the photo…My first impulse was to cover it up again with the little piece of satin, like someone protecting a living eye from seeing the face of a corpse, and as if I were suddenly aware that one is not responsible for what one sees, but for what one looks at, that the latter can always be avoided – you always have the choice – after the first inevitable glimpse, which is treacherous, involuntary, fleeting, and takes you by surprise, you can close your eyes or immediately cover them with your hands or turn away or choose to pass swiftly on to the next page without pausing (‘Turn the page, turn the page, I don’t want your horror or your suffering, Turn the page, and save yourself’).

Jacobo imagines that his mother took the photograph away with her when it was shown to her by the authorities “because to leave that photograph in the file of administered deaths would have been rather like abandoning to the elements a body she never actually saw and whose final resting place she never knew, tantamount to failing to give it a decent burial.”  For Jacobo, the photograph is a “confirmation”, not a betrayal.  The photograph commands respect. “…there are images that engrave themselves on the mind even if they last only an instant, and so it had been with that photo, so much so that I could draw it precisely from memory…”

It’s a curious decision of discretion that Marias does not reproduce a photograph that corresponds with the post-mortem photograph  of the bloodied face, which Jacobo describes in some detail.  Rather, we see only the sunlit image of the young man while still alive, unaware of the fate that awaits him and that surrounds him in the text.  Although there are other illustrations in Fever and Spear (mostly reproductions of British World War II-era posters from a campaign warning the population against spilling secrets to the enemy – “Careless Talk Costs Lives”), this is the sole real photograph in the book.

Javier Marias and W.G. Sebald knew and admired each other, with Sebald purportedly referring to Marias as a “twin writer.”  Sebald included a photograph of Marias’ eyes in his book of poems and photographs Unrecounted.  Marias dubbed Sebald the Duke of Vertigo in the imaginary Kingdom of Redonda that he administers.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very good two part interview with Marias over at KCRW’s Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt:

    May 15, 2010

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