Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream by Javier Marías trs Margaret Jull Costa

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The Independent Culture

The Spanish writer Javier Marías is a unique talent in contemporary fiction, and it is something approaching a collective crime of philistinism that his work is not better recognised and more widely read in this country. The publication of Dance and Dream, the second novel in his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, marks an excellent time to leap aboard: not only are Marías's discursive, downbeat, fiercely perceptive novels among the best work being produced anywhere at the moment, but it keeps everyone on their toes for the reading public to beat the Nobel committee to the punch every now and then.

Jacques Deza, Marías's shadowy protagonist and the narrator of his glittering Oxford novel All Souls, is worried. Estranged from his Spanish wife and children and leading a solitary life in London, he has been annexed by the mysterious Bertram Tupra to work for a Government department of watchers and interpreters, observing and commenting on apparently random collections of people for reasons unexplained. The talent they value is one that he is not even sure he possesses - an ability to see people's faces tomorrow, or to predict simply from observing them how they might react to subsequent events. But can he do it? Does Tupra even report to the Government? Is Deza a spy, a consultant, or a dupe? What is the moral weight of sharing such information? And how exactly should one behave when one's previously mild-mannered employer lures a man into a nightclub's disabled lavatory, pulls out a sword and threatens to slice his head off?

Marías's writing, by turns ebullient, snappish, lyrical, self-delighting and chilling, remains as technically impeccable as ever. His precise focus discovers instruction in the most unprepossessing interactions, and he makes great unwieldy-looking 18-line sentences flicker by at dangerous, glorious speed, like a course of hairpin bends. This book depends upon a good translator and Margaret Jull Costa's fluent and deft rendering is as uniformly excellent as ever.

Dance and Dream is a much funnier book than its predecessor; the combination of the dry, sidelong narrative voice with the ludicrously extended comic unpleasantness of the central set-piece (lavatory and sword) is irresistible. So are the descriptions of Deza's downtime, in which he lurks at home watching the man across the road dancing alone until the man across the road starts watching back.

But the humour never settles into broadness, and the tonal variation is constant: the author's preoccupation with the atrocities and betrayals of the Spanish Civil War is as strong here as in the trilogy's first part, and it throws up images of arresting poignancy and horror for every parallel comic twist. Marías's ability to chart and ravel out each branch of a thought is unmatched, and the restrained confidence with which he does so lends the novel an atmosphere of stately tension.

The only caveat is that you need to have read Fever and Spear before starting this book. Happily, the paperback is now available, which makes for a double recommendation. We are unlikely to see a piece of more sustainedly clever writing than this trilogy for some time.