"[Th]ere are some obligations that can't simply be unbuckled and discarded. That's why some are so difficult to buckle on in the first place and why others must be very firmly buckled on, so that there can be no turning back."
That, in essence, is what the seven parts and three volumes of Your Face Tomorrow are really about. On the surface, it is about Jacques Deza, struggling to conform to a new life and separation from his wife, becoming an interpreter and forming strange relationships, giving the reader a constant stream of observations. But it is really about obligations.
Deza is defined by his connections, whether to his estranged wife Luisa, or his boss Tupra, or his mentor Peter Wheeler, or to any of the numerous other attachments he makes throughout the narrative. His wife represents Spain, his home, while Wheeler represents England, his place of exile, and Tupra the grey area in-between, where Deza exists throughout the story, as he struggles to determine where he actually belongs; in short, where his true obligations lie.
We learn early on that his story is not really his own (and in that sense is the signal that Marias is taking much of his direction from Tristram Shandy, though in a more mature, deliberate way), that he defines much of what he is by the fortunes of his father and by the Spanish Civil War in general, that he learned very early that life is about observations, about reporting what you know, when prompted, but always observing. When he leaves home for the first time, he meets Toby Rylands, who becomes his first mentor. When he leaves home the second time, it's Peter Wheeler. When he leaves home the third, it's Tupra.
We learn how these relationships inform each other as the third volume unfolds, Wheeler's secret history, after Deza's idea of narrative horror has been explored. We have already learned that Wheeler and Rylands were brothers, that Deza owes his relationships with Wheeler and Tupra to Rylands, always a ghost, the most clear specter of the whole narrative, never actually present, only active in Deza's thoughts and Wheeler's reflections. Deza finds his way back to his own present through his abhorrence, his growing awareness of what life would be like if he retained the wrong obligations (the answer to Tupra's question in the second volume, why people can't just go around killing and hurting each other).
That Deza's life can be condensed to a few key incidents, some of which are not even his own, is the achievement of the whole work, the reason why it is so long, and written in the way it is, that most of it is a meditation, since that's the only reason the main character is relevant, because otherwise he is a coward, impotent, not in the least bit heroic, which is what most people expect from such characters. Yet his greatness is his expansiveness, his capacity to extrapolate the extraordinary from the mundane, to create a James Bond existence out of a life that for all intents and purposes has very little meaning (Wheeler, for the record, has a clear Bond connection in having served with Ian Fleming during WWII).
Marias has written perhaps a perfect novel, a version of Shakespeare for the 21st Century, when the role of kings has been replaced by survivors, not just of wars but their own narrative horrors.