Javier Marias

Your Face Tomorrow 3: Poison, Shadow and Farewell

The third book in the Your Face Tomorrow series, 2009

For Carmen Lopez M, who has been kind enough to hear me out patiently until the end

And for my friend Sir Peter Russell and my father, Julian Marias, who generously lent me a large part of their lives, in memoriam.

5 Poison

'While it isn't ever something we would wish for, we would all nonetheless always prefer it to be the person beside us who dies, whether on a mission or in battle, in an air squadron or under bombardment or in the trenches when there were trenches, in a mugging or a raid on a shop or when a group of tourists is kidnapped, in an earthquake, an explosion, a terrorist attack, in a fire, it doesn't matter: even if it's our colleague, brother, father or even our child, however young. Or even the person we most love, yes, even them, anyone but us. Whenever someone covers another person with his own body, or places himself in the path of a bullet or a knife, these are all extraordinary exceptions, which is why they stand out, and most are fictitious and only appear in novels and films. The few real-life instances are the result of unthinking reflexes or else dictated by a strong sense of decorum of a sort that is becoming ever rarer, there are some who couldn't bear for a child or a loved one to pass into the next world with, as their final thought, the knowledge that a parent or lover had done nothing to prevent their death, had not sacrificed themselves, had not given their own life to save them, it's as if such people had internalized a hierarchy of the living, which seems so quaint and antiquated now, whereby children have more right to live than women and women more than men and men more than the old, or something of the sort, at least that's how it used to be, and such old-fashioned chivalry still persists in a dwindling band of people, those who still believe in that decorum, which, when you think about it, is quite absurd, after all, what do such final thoughts, such transient feelings of pique or disappointment matter when, a moment later, the person concerned will be dead and incapable of feeling either pique or disappointment, incapable, indeed, of thinking? It's true that there are still a few people who harbor this deep-seated belief and to whom it does matter, and they are, in fact, acting so that the person they are saving can bear witness, so that he or she will think well of them and remember them with eternal admiration and gratitude; what they don't realize at that decisive moment, or at least not fully, is that they will never enjoy that admiration or gratitude because they will be the ones who, a moment later, will be dead.'

And what came into my head while he was talking was an expression that was both difficult to grasp and possibly untranslatable, which is why, at first, I didn't mention it to Tupra, it would have taken me too long to explain. My initial thought was: 'It's what we call 'verguenza torera' literally 'a bullfighter's sense of shame,'' and then: 'Because bullfighters, of course, have loads of witnesses, a whole arenaful, plus sometimes a TV audience of millions, so it's perfectly understandable that they should think: 'I'd rather leave here with a ruptured femoral artery or dead than be thought a coward in the presence of all these people who will go on to talk about it endlessly and forever.' Bullfighters fear narrative horror like the plague, that final defining wrong move, they really care about how their lives end, it's the same with Dick Dearlove and almost any other public figure, I suppose, whose story is played out in full view of everyone at every stage or chapter, right up to the denouement that can mark a whole life and give it an entirely false and unfair meaning.' And then I couldn't help saying it out loud, even though it meant briefly interrupting Tupra. But it did, after all, add to what he was saying and was also a way of pretending that this was a dialogue:

'That's what we call 'verguenza torera.'' And I said the two words in Spanish, then immediately translated them. 'I'll explain to you exactly what it means another day, since you don't have bullfighters here.' Although at that moment, I wasn't even sure there would be another day, another day at his side, not one.

'OK, but don't forget. And no, you're right, we don't have bullfighters here.' Tupra was always curious to hear the turns of phrase in my own language about which I occasionally enlightened him, whenever they seemed relevant or were particularly striking. Now, however, he was enlightening me (I knew where he was heading, and both he and the path he was taking aroused my curiosity over and above the foreseeable revulsion I would feel at the end of the journey), and so he continued: 'From there to letting someone die in order to save yourself is only a step, and trying to ensure that someone else dies in your place or even bringing that about (you know the kind of thing, it's him or me) is just one more short step, and both steps are easily taken, especially the first, in fact, in an extreme situation, almost everyone takes that step. How else explain why it is that in a fire at a theater or a disco more people are crushed or trampled to death than burned or asphyxiated, or why when a ship sinks there are people who don't even wait for the lifeboat to be full before lowering it into the water, just so that they can get away quickly and without being burdened by other passengers, or why the expression 'Every man for himself' exists, which, after all, means discarding all consideration for others and reverting to the law of the jungle, which we all accept and to which we return without a second's thought, even though we've spent more than half our lives with that law in abeyance or under control. The reality is that we're doing violence to ourselves by not following and obeying it at all times and in all circumstances, but even so we apply that law far more often than we acknowledge, but surreptitiously, under cover of a thin veneer of civility or in the guise of other more respectful laws and regulations, more slowly and with numerous detours and stages along the way, it's all very laborious but, deep down, it's the law of the jungle that rules, that holds sway. It is, think about it. Among individuals and among nations.'

Tupra had used the English equivalent of 'Salvese quien pueda,' which means literally 'Save yourself if you can,' whereas 'Every man for himself denotes perhaps even fewer scruples: let each man save his own skin and worry only about himself, save himself by whatever means are available to him, and let others look after themselves, the weaker, the slower, the more ingenuous and the more stupid (and the more protective, too, like my son Guillermo). At that moment, you can allow yourself to shove and trample and kick others out of the way, or use an oar to smash in the head of anyone trying to hold onto your boat and get into it when it's already sliding down into the water with you and yours inside it, and there's no room for anyone else, or you simply don't want to share it or run the risk of capsizing. The situations may be different, but that commanding voice belongs to the same family or type as three other voices: the voice that issues an instruction to fire at will, to slaughter, to beat a disorderly retreat or to flee en masse; the one that orders to shoot at close range and indiscriminately whoever you happen to see or catch, the voice urging us to bayonet or knife someone, to take no prisoners, to leave not a soul alive ('Give no quarter,' is the command, or worse 'Show no mercy'); and the voice that tells us to fly, to withdraw and break ranks, pele-mele in French or pell-mell in its English form; soldiers fleeing en masse when there are not enough escape routes to flee alone, each listening only to his own survival instinct and therefore indifferent to the fate of his companions, who no longer count and who have, in fact, ceased to be companions, even though we're all still in uniform and feel, more or less, the same fear in that shared flight.

I sat looking at Tupra in the light of the lamps and in the light of the fire, the latter making his complexion more coppery than usual, as if he had Native American blood in his veins-it occurred to me then that his lips could perhaps be Sioux-his complexion now not so much the color of beer as of whisky. He had not yet reached his destination, he had only begun his journey and would not be slow about it, and I was sure that sooner or later he

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