[Knopf; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

The International Spy Museum is a nondescript cube in downtown Washington where curious families can spend thirty dollars a person to descend through three floors of exhibits devoted to the relentless romanticizing of a figure that, up until a hundred years ago, the clandestine military referred to with euphemistic embarrassment as a “scout.” My seven-year-old son loved every minute of it. He loved it so much that, about two hours into our recent visit, I began to worry that we were tapping into a corner of his psyche that did not need to be encouraged. Why spies, after all? Why not code breakers, research scientists, or the wiseacres of a more straightforwardly hypocritical show about military heroism, like MASH? But seven-year-olds don’t like MASH—or at least this seven-year-old didn’t. What he liked was the world of self-sacrificing patriots that the International Spy Museum offered him—a world that, for all its Jacobin veneer, was essentially a fairy tale, with a clear cut hero (The Spy), and a cast of faceless villains (Nazis, Communists, Terrorists) whose contexts and complicated motivations were not really important to the story being told, and therefore did not need to be looked too far into.

I couldn’t help thinking of the International Spy Museum, and its alternate history of politics (a history that, like most good deceptions, is both factually accurate and completely misleading), as I read Tomas Nevinson, the newest and last novel by the great Spanish novelist Javier Marías. Widely considered one of the best writers of his generation, Marías, who died on September 11, 2022, constructed novel after intricate novel around spying, both the literal kind and the more figurative domestic spycraft engaged in by all human beings. A student of the genre (he wrote articles about contemporaries like John le Carré and Simenon, as well as translating books by espionage-adjacent ancestors like Joseph Conrad into Spanish), he internalized the acrobatics of plot and character that go into a good spy novel. And yet, one of the most satisfying aspects of his work is the way that he inverts these tricks, shifting our focus away from the genre’s lizard-brain scaffolding, and towards the more complicated figure of the spy himself, whom Marías pictures as a kind of Prince Hamlet trapped in a story whose certainties erode the deeper he looks into them. 

Tomas Nevinson—the crotchety, semi-retired agent who both is and is not the title character narrating the novel—is a typical Maríasian hero in this way, if only because he welcomes us to his story with a meditation that feels like the exact opposite of the kind of ambush-in-a-dark-alley opening that we might be expecting from this type of book. But then what type of book are we expecting? Marías frustrates our attempts to answer this question, launching us into a discussion whose subjects range from memory to the execution of Marie Antoinette, to the hypothetical assassination of Hitler before he became the leader of the Third Reich. His willingness to ignore the usual generic markers is surprising, but he makes sure not to stray too far into either boredom or a sense that something has “gone wrong.” So, even as he opens his book in the key of a chatty insider’s memoir, Marías keeps the conversation grounded in a topic that is bound to warm the cockles of any armchair agent’s heart—that is, murder:

Killing another person is the hardest thing anyone can do, a platitude largely endorsed by people who have never killed anyone. They say this because they can’t imagine themselves with a pistol or a knife in their hand, or a rope to strangle with or a machete, most crimes take time and physical effort if they involve hand to hand combat, they also imply a degree of danger (the other person might seize our weapon in the struggle and then we would be the ones to give up the ghost). However, people have long been accustomed to seeing characters in films using rifles with telescopic sights, then you only have to pull the trigger to hit your target and job done, a clean, aseptic task with little risk, and nowadays someone can operate a drone thousands of miles away from the target and end one life or several as if it were all a fiction, an imaginary act, like in a video game (you watch the result on screen) or, for the more archaically minded, like on a pinball machine where you’re in deadly combat with a fat steel ball. Then there is absolutely no chance of ending up spattered with blood.

Much has been written about Marías’s long, unapologetically “literary” sentences, but the interesting thing is how spontaneous and improvisational this prose feels, as if it were being written on the spot. It’s the language of someone who is trying to explain something; at the same time, it does not use the high relief of its voice to suggest unreliability, as we can imagine in a more hip deconstructive riff on the genre. If anything, Marías leans into the fictional convention of words = thought, including the interminable qualifications that float like downed tree limbs along the stream of consciousness, retarding his narration at the same time as propelling it forward. Such one-step-up-two-steps-back peristalsis gives a lumpiness that feels relatively unprocessed, not to mention appropriate to the story itself. As we realize fairly on, the plot of Tomas Nevinson is not going to unfold with the unsplattered elegance of a drone kill. On the contrary, it will stumble over itself, shambling into the kind of messy, many-sided debacle whose participants spend the rest of their life trying to justify their actions, or, failing that, understand them.

The problem begins with a proposition delivered by Bertram Tupra, the British-intelligence spymaster whom inveterate Marías fans will recognize from the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, where he is presented as a mysterious, if problematic mentor figure. The Tupra of Tomas Nevinson, on the other hand, is seen through the less sympathetic consciousness of Tomas himself, who dislikes and mistrusts the handler due to several past betrayals—not the least of which is Tupra’s recruitment of Tomas for a life of spying in the first place. In Tomas’s own understanding, this is an original sin: a deception, or at least manipulation, whose disastrousness has become even clearer since he retired from espionage. And yet, as so often happens with retirement, there is a brittleness in Tomas’s hard-earned repose, a longing, not just in the content of his narration but in its obsessive, prevaricating rhythms, to return to the life he once left.

It is this bad faith that Tupra takes advantage of, through a mixture of charm, bullying, and appeals to Tomas’s vanity, to return for one last mission. Marías describes this assault on Tomas’s complacency with the kind of delicacy that another writer might give to a hotly contested military campaign. In the end, however, it is Tomas who convinces himself, or at least convinces himself that he has convinced himself:

That, up to a point, was what had made me accept: the temptation to write another chapter, the idea that I had not yet finished my own little book, when I had already assumed I had reached the end. Above all, and as I have said before: even if you’re weary and decide to abandon everything, even if you miss the tranquil life you’ve never had (and that in itself is a fantasy: you can’t miss it if you’ve led a very different life full of tension, deception and danger), it becomes unbearable to be outside once you’ve been inside, where you’ve felt that you could, occasionally, disturb the universe, just a whisker. We cannot resist exerting some degree of influence, however minimal, to alter the course of some diminutive existence.

That “we cannot resist” is what Tupra (and Marías, and all of us) is counting on: that desire will beat scruple, launching us into the irresistible current of story. At the same time, there is a reluctance to Tomas’s confession that makes us wonder just how serious he is about returning to the “life full of tension, deception and danger.” Indeed, the more we move through his narration, the more we sense that what he wants is not to trade his ghostly state for a body, with all its demands and inconveniences, but to remain suspended between worlds, story and nonstory, existence and nonexistence, action and contemplation. He wants to “do without incurring the immense debtorship of a thing done,” as that great spy Stephen Daedalus once said. So the framing of Marías’s drama prepares us before its curtain even rises to read Tomas’s confession less as a victory lap than as a setup, one in which the hyperarticulate hero will be forced to get exactly what he wants—to “disturb the universe,” and then live in the universe he has disturbed, but which not even his most prescient intuitions could have predicted.

Now: five hundred pages of plot. This is better than it sounds. Plot after all is the reason that we usually read spy novels, or at least one reason: to feel that, baffling though it may seem, the world is something that we will eventually get to the bottom of. In Tomas Nevinson’s case, the bedrock that we are trying to reach is the identity of a Basque-Irish separatist whom Tupra claims has been living incognito in northwestern Spain ever since she helped commit a terrorist attack that left dozens of Spanish civilians dead or injured over a decade earlier. Due to various opaque shenanigans, the time has come for this Mata Hari to be identified out of a lineup of three potential suspects: a wilted society woman married to a local land baron, a bubbly housewife, and the somewhat bland manager of a local café. All these women lead normal lives, occupied, on the surface at least, by the usual satisfactions and griefs. And yet one of them is responsible for one of the most horrific terrorist acts in Spanish history—an act for which she has gotten away scot free.

Enter Tomas Nevinson, or rather Michael Centurion, as Tupra’s team instructs our narrator to call himself after setting up shop in the provincial village, ostensibly as a humble English teacher but really to interact with these three women to the point that he can say for certain which one of them is the elusive terrorist Magdalena Orue or “Maggie O’Shaugnassy” (everyone in this novel has at least two names). The setup is Goldilocksian in its simplicity, and for a while at least Tomas does seem to be succeeding, immersing himself in the life of the town, and ingratiating himself with a few of its better-connected characters. He even begins a sexual relationship with the café manager, a woman whose gigantesque body inspires both revulsion and fascination:

Ines Marzan not only had an enormous mouth and very full lips, her teeth were far too large, like those of the Big Bad Wolf, only not as sharp. The idea of venturing in there with his tongue filled him with doubts or even fear, as if he were about to expose it to a saw or grinder. Her friendly, even sweet expression mitigated that feeling of threat, but not enough: those teeth looked very powerful. Centurion couldn’t help thinking cynically: ‘Perhaps she’s one of those women who’s not so keen on kissing, because not all women are, and instead gives priority to other areas and other excesses. Let’s hope so.’

The switch into the third person is one that Tomas performs frequently, especially when he is describing things that he would like to keep at arm’s length—in this case, the “cynical” and mostly unflattering picture that he gives of Ines, which feels less like professional observation than the cold-blooded elevator-eyeing of a cad. The irony of the technique is that, though its purpose may be to strengthen the boundaries between Tomas and Centurion, the effect is to blur them, drawing our attention to the main thing that both character and creator share—their capacity for deception. Both men lie easily and well: an essential skill for the spy and the womanizer. And yet the quality that we as readers cannot help but detect underneath Tomas’s acting is self-indulgence: a capacity for letting oneself off the hook that we recognize immediately as one of Tomas’s weak points—at least as a spy. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot keep the crisp caricature of his spy novel from blurring into the more equivocal portraiture of nineteenth century literary realism—and this becomes more of a problem for him the further we progress in the book, since the one thing that Tupra and his fellow shady administrators want from Tomas is a simple story, at whose center the guilty name will be discovered sleeping peacefully in our bed.  

Tomas’s reluctance to satisfy this desire feels understandable enough, given the complexity of his situation, but the stakes surrounding his indecision become even higher about two thirds of the way through the book, when a more recent bombing by the Basque separatist group and increase of political pressure force Tupra to issue an ultimatum. In a prolonged conversation, he enjoins Tomas, like an impatient novel reader, to “cut to the chase”—a command that Tomas bristles at, claiming that he hasn’t understood Tupra’s subtleties. But for Tupra, this really is the lady protesting too much:

‘Of course you have, Nevinson, don’t act dumb, it doesn’t suit you. Cutting to the chase means cutting out the infected part of the wound. Or the uninfected part, yes, even those who aren’t guilty, so as not to leave any guilty party on the loose. What is it that you don’t understand? Your failure, your timorous response, leaves us no alternative. Or, rather, leaves George no alternative. Here we carry out the orders, that’s what the favour consists in, but he’s the one giving the orders.’

Tupra’s solution to Tomas’s impasse is as ruthless as a fairy tale king’s: either the spy tells him which of the three women is Maggie O’Shaughnassy, or all three will be murdered. The language of this ultimatum is brutally unsubtle—the tough-guy prose of a genre boss making the difficult decision that his inferior won’t. Interestingly enough, it is Tupra’s own point of view that comes off sounding sentimental—not just bullying, but as hyperbolic and cliché as a Bond villain’s monologue. It is a story that he is trying to speak into truth—one that we know by this point to be simpleminded shoehorning. In literary terms, it is the hysterical insistence of the reader who knows what a story is about, and insists that any other readings are morally suspect. And yet it is exactly Tupra’s belligerent conviction, and Tomas’s spirited (if doomed) resistance, that shows us the utterly made up and rhetorical nature of this “lack of alternatives.”

Unfortunately for Tomas’s guilty conscience, Tupra’s mathematical framing of the situation wins out, or at least proves more persuasive, forcing Tomas himself to do what he has so far managed to avoid doing for the entire novel: that is, choose. What follows is a tour-de-force sequence when our main character prepares to spring his trap, and then does spring it, although not in the way that we expect. With a relish for the mechanics of narration that borders on sadism, Marías snaps his frame onto the work of a single night, then a single room, then a single action, which we watch like cruise ship passengers staring at an iceberg. The storytelling becomes excruciating, unflinching, in a way that both balances and justifies its previous tentativeness. And then suddenly it is over, and the only thing left for Tomas is to live with the consequences of what he has done.  

That he does this, and that we get to watch him do it with the same steady attention that we have observed him planning and maneuvering, is a testament both to Marías and his chosen genre. As Milan Kundera observed decades ago, consequences are what the novel is good at. Not the spy novel, necessarily, or at least not the classic spy novel whose blueprint (which is really a myth) Tomas Nevinson is clearly working against, but the larger and more vital tradition that achieved its first masterpiece when Marías’s countryman cartwheeled the dominant prose genre of his day. This violation gave birth, in Don Quixote, to a romance that was something that later generations would learn to call “realistic,” but which was more a way of examining the human tendency to confuse the real and the unreal, by treating the conventions of storytelling so seriously that they become, to our delighted eyes, ridiculous. Four hundred years later, the technologies of the novel have developed, but the form’s obsession, and the source of its greatest energies, has stayed the same. We are not serious creatures, or at least not entirely serious. But the world we live in is as serious as it gets, which means that to live with it we need to constantly be finding a way of telling stories that does justice to both sides.

Though it is hardly the most engaging of Marías’s books (here’s looking at you, A Heart So White), Tomas Nevinson suggests a way that novelists can keep telling the stories we so desperately need while examining their own procedure in a way that keeps these stories honest, or at least reckons with the consequences of their dishonesty. Is this enough? Probably not—but as Marías reminded us over and over again, it is better than the alternative. Reality may be unruly and even illegible, and though we may want and even need to forget that at times, our escape is not without its consequences. Someone always pays. Or, to put it in the famous words of William Butler Yeats, a poet whom Javier Marías translated into Spanish decades ago, at the beginning of his extensive, fruitful, and now sadly concluded literary career, “in dreams begin responsibilities.”

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine.

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