Careless Talk


Javier Marías begins “Tu rostro mañana” (“Your Face Tomorrow”) with a warning: “No debería uno contar nunca nada” (“one should never tell anyone anything”)(*):

Telling is almost always done as a gift (…) it is also a bond, a granting of trust, and rare is the trust or confidence that is not sooner or later betrayed…

“to fall silent, yes, silent, is the great ambition that no one achieves not even after death.” (1)

In the novel, the narrator, Jacobo Deza, has a special gift for seeing behind the masks people wear:

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. (1)

An old friend of Jacobo, a retired Oxford Professor, recruits him for a job in a mysterious branch of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. Jacobo becomes ‘an interpreter of lives’. He is shown interviews with people of interest to the British government and he provides an “interpretation”, a context, what could come later, what has not yet happened but might happen:

In Your Face Tomorrow, the main subject is the near impossibility of knowing what a face, in a metaphorical sense, can bring us tomorrow. We tend to believe we know what to expect from the people around us, the people we love. Even if we have hints of things we don’t like, we ignore these warnings. (2)

Jacobo’s task is to assign identities, moralities, wishes? to other people, to anticipate what “their face tomorrow” will be. As an automatic interpreter, he doesn’t even know what he is doing. He is the perfect metaphor for the data mining algorithms behind the advertisement-supported digital economy and the massive surveillance efforts of governments across the world.

The violation of confidence is also this: not just being indiscreet and thereby causing harm or ruin (…) it is also profiting from the knowledge obtained through another’s weakness or carelessness or generosity, and not respecting or remembering the route by which we came to know the information that we are now manipulating or twisting (…) sometimes it’s enough just to say something out loud for the air to grasp and distort it… (1)

Marías reflects on the thin line between what is real and what is possible against the backdrop of many references to World War II and the Spanish Civil War. My favourite one is the British Propaganda against ‘careless talk’, designed to discourage people from talking about sensitive material when it could be overheard by spies.

As it happens, Javier Marías is borrowing from his own life; the narrator’s father is his own father:

For me, it was a good example of two men who had been friends for years, ever since boys, during all their university years and all of a sudden, at the end of a civil war, one of them betrays another to the police, which meant normally you were going to be shot (2)

Marías’ father survived, but what surprises and startles the son is: “How is it possible he couldn’t see his face tomorrow?”


(*) The following quotations are taken from:

  1. Javier Marías, “Tu rostro mañana: Fiebre y Lanza”, 2002;  English translation Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear” by Margaret Jull Costa, 2005.
  2. Javier Marías, Interview for The Guardian “Betrayal of a blood brother

Featured Image: British Propaganda during World War II “Careless Talks Cost Lives”; The National Archives

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