Tomás Nevinson 
by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Hamish Hamilton, 640 pp., £22, March, 978 0 241 56861 3
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‘And he may be thinking,’ we read in Berta Isla, Javier Marías’s last novel but one, published in Spanish in 2017, ‘that, basically, he belongs to the category of people who don’t see themselves as protagonists, not even of their own story … who discover halfway through that … their story will not merit being told by anyone, or only as a fleeting reference when recounting another person’s more eventful and interesting life.’

This is a woman talking about her husband, and she knows him better than we do. They met in school in Franco’s Spain, and treated their marriage, when it finally happened, as a kind of fluctuating destiny. But Berta may be only half-right, because much of her life with Nevinson has been a matter of absence, and for a long time she believed he was dead. What if he does think about his life in just this way, but has taken measures to provide himself with another one, full of death and danger, with himself as the unavoidable protagonist? The answer to the question is written all over Tomás Nevinson, which appeared in Spanish in 2021, and has just been published in English.

A little more than three-quarters of the way through this novel (Marías’s last – he died of Covid-triggered pneumonia in September 2022) we read:

The whole story stank. It had right from the start … The high-ups of MI5, MI6 and CESID, organisms of the Crown in all cases, would know nothing of my activities … and would never have authorised them. Or perhaps they did know about them and were pretending not to, those labyrinthine orders do not always begin at the top, but do always end up at the bottom, with the person who has to carry them out.

CESID was a Spanish intelligence agency: Centro Superior de Información de la Defensa. Nevinson himself is the person at the bottom, and the one who has been talking since the beginning of the book. He feels trapped and angry, but perhaps this makes him all the better as a witness. He is a retired Anglo-Spanish spy – he thinks he may be ‘slightly more English than madrileño’ – who has been called back to work and is very clear about his motive for return. ‘It was the longing to be back inside,’ on the job rather than on the shelf. ‘I had always felt we were “we”, wherever I happened to be and even if I was alone.’ He had been a spy for twenty years, and he is still only 45.

Nevinson is not really sceptical about the demands of ‘the Crown’, or what his boss keeps calling the defence of the realm. But he does have certain scruples. On his return to work he assumes a fresh identity as a schoolteacher and moves to a provincial Spanish city, where he infiltrates various lives, seeking to discover which of three possible women were involved in ETA’s attacks on civilians and children in 1987. He gathers material, good grounds for intelligent guessing, and his boss is sure Nevinson has found the right woman, who may be still active, both with ETA and the IRA. Nevinson himself isn’t so confident, but that isn’t his main worry. The story stank from the start because he knew the way it was supposed to end, even if he couldn’t think straight about it. His job would be over when – to use one of the metaphors for murder that are so rife in this book – he had taken the woman out of the picture.

Marías had been here before. These two late novels look back to his trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (2002-7), because the spymaster is the same in both worlds: one Bertram Tupra, a figure Nevinson both reveres and detests. It’s eerie to read two extensive first-person narratives in which the voices are meant to belong to different people – Jacques Deza in the earlier case, Nevinson in the second – but seem pretty much the same. We may think this is the effect of their both being Tupra’s pupils, or perhaps it’s just that all spies, like all happy families, are alike. Of course both stories are by Marías, but why isn’t he trying to diversify a little? Isn’t he supposed to be a novelist?

There are moments that complicate this question a little. At one point Nevinson recalls his meeting with Tupra in Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford. I thought: wait a minute, didn’t they meet at a party? No – but Tupra and Deza did meet at a party in one of the books in the trilogy. Smiley’s people aren’t, of course, just one person. And then, about halfway through the book, I found myself wondering why one of the characters was talking just like the narrator. I didn’t have time to fully formulate the query before it was taken up by the narrator himself. He says: ‘I thought: “So María Viana is like me and like Berta, or as we both were for a long time and possibly are again now: those who merely exist and wait.”’

Naturally, people who share a condition don’t have to talk in the same way, and Marías’s other characters, unlike his narrators, are usually quite different in their diction and style. But his point, perfectly illustrated by my falling for the resemblance, is that people can be more alike than different and that this perception can be illustrated in language. Later in the book other characters sound momentarily like the narrator, offering reminders that many of us talk like novelists at times, whether we recognise it or not. It isn’t irrelevant that the character in my example, María Viana, is speaking to her husband, who isn’t listening.

The profusion of references in the book, what Marías calls ‘quotations’ or ‘appropriations’, is part of the same game. If we’re in Oxford we have to hear about Morse. Nevinson’s visual spying makes him think of Rear Window. A drug dealer whistles the theme tune from High Noon. A bald-headed man looks like the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. An MI6 worker has a name borrowed from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. There are classier echoes too: Eliot, Yeats, Wilfred Owen. Early on, we’re told that we’re entering the world of ‘the uncontentable Macbeth’, and we seem never to leave. These allusions say many things, but two implications stand out: we aren’t alone, and we have arrived late to whatever show we are supposed to be attending.

Sometimes the show is quite dizzying. Nevinson has a conversation in London with the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. ‘I had gone to visit him in his house in Gloucester Road, passing myself off as a Spanish novelist.’ Let’s see if we can get this straight. A Spanish novelist passing himself off as a Spanish/English spy passing himself off as a Spanish novelist is pretending to have talked to someone he actually knew. Nevinson tells us, via a reconstructed conversation, that the novelist he was pretending to be was called Manera, the Spanish word for ‘manner’. (For the pedantic record, I think Cabrera Infante’s dwelling was a flat not a house, but I’m not sure where that fact, if correct, belongs.)

‘I’m still here and still talking,’ we read late in the book. Talking is a metaphor for writing, of course, and it’s a metaphor that applies even if we’re listening to an audiobook – someone is reading the text. But who is ‘talking’ here? Obviously Nevinson. And obviously Marías too. Sometimes both, as when the narrator says he has ‘mentioned this murder more than once’. Or when he repeats himself, as he frequently does without apology. Or when he registers the fact that ‘much less time had passed’ in the narrative ‘than the time it has taken me to describe that pause’. The most interesting move in this context is perhaps Nevinson’s thinking of his as yet unlived real life as a book. In deciding to go back to spying, he talks of ‘the temptation to write another chapter, the idea that I had not finished my own little book.’ He will write the chapter by means of active espionage service, and finish his book the same way. And then – but this is literally another story – he will do his talking to an imaginary audience, which Marías and his publisher and our attention will turn into a real one.

But is it Marías’s taste or Nevinson’s which is expressed in the phrase ‘that sordid artist Lucian Freud’, or in sharing the news that ‘nothing else’ Umberto Eco wrote was ‘as successful as The Name of the Rose’? The whole novel is full of statements that seem like a pastiche of the very idea of saying something, and at one point the narrator comments on the cliché ‘if you care to know my opinion’: ‘This is what a lot of people say when their opinion is entirely unwanted and unnecessary.’ It’s intriguing, and in the end I think illuminating, that Nevinson/Marías should be the analyst of this tactic, and, within the book, the chief offender.

One can make a kind of breviary of the platitudes this narrator cheerfully offers, keeping in mind that one use of banality may be the satire of banality, and that one person’s platitude may be another’s insight. Just listen.

One misses everything that no longer is and once was.

We are, by nature, impenetrable and opaque, and lies are invisible.

He was a pleasant man, or could be, and that quality is not entirely at odds with being utterly ruthless.

He knew that everything always exists for everyone, that nothing is ever completely left behind.

People always talk in the end.

Objects are very silent when you know nothing about their owner.

You can never know when a person stops being that person.

However much you watch over other people’s interests, you keep a still closer watch on your own.

When there’s no alternative, anyone can pretend to be what they are not.

It’s not unusual for heartless people to appear gentle and humble.

We all think this is something that happens to other people and not to us.

Yes, we all end up telling more than we should.

It’s clear that these phrases add up to a kind of portrait of the speaker, a revealing mask. But we still have to make our guesses about the moments when we think Marías is mocking himself through Nevinson, and when Nevinson is mocking himself without any assistance. The phrases are forms not of wisdom but of what Roland Barthes called doxa, the utterance of what the world thinks, or what we think it ought to think. Balzac, as Barthes suggests, is a master of this language, and what for the narrator is a tale of snooping in a Spanish town could easily be called Scenes from Provincial Life, more interesting as accumulating pictures of a place and its people than as a contribution to any plot. The women who are not terrorists get equal time to the woman who is, or might be.

Comparisons to Proust and Henry James come up a lot when critics discuss Marías, but we could also see his style, his performance, as something akin to a too-late Balzac, aided perhaps by a disciple of the Ancient Mariner. The prose has the extraordinary effect of making us simultaneously wonder why we’re still reading this garrulous stuff and how we could possibly stop. The only other novel I know that works in this way is Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.* Writing in 2009, James Lasdun called Marías’s trilogy ‘a work of sublime lunacy’, and the phrase works well for Tomás Nevinson too. The lunacy, though, takes the form of a painful parade of sanity. What could be crazier than talking endlessly, sensibly, about a world that has exchanged reason for disguise?

One thing that isn’t a metaphor in this book is espionage. Spying is where Nevinson is trapped and where he finds the story he otherwise lacks. The fictional person he fictionally chases caused many horrible historical deaths. The novel’s characters become extensively absorbed in ETA’s real-life kidnapping and killing of Miguel Ángel Blanco in July 1997. But Nevinson and Marías are both suggesting that you can’t talk about contemporary spying without engaging in mythology, and a very particular mythology haunts the narration. Does a secret service always resemble a mafia? A good mafia, of course, always on the right side – even if it’s shady. Take this mythologising description of the effect of Tupra’s eyes. They

always filled one with confidence and, at the same time, sent shivers down the spine, one felt ennobled by them, appreciated, indispensable; and also on the brink of something cruel or something dirty that would do battle with something even crueller and even dirtier. No one ever emerged from those missions unsullied.

Battle is the recurring slogan of justification. ‘In war there’s no room for regrets.’ There is always a war on, especially in ostensible peacetime. Or, as Nevinson puts it: ‘For ten or twelve years, let’s say between 1989 and 2001, the inevitable nebulousness that hovers over the secretive world grew still denser, until, that is, the attack on the Twin Towers put an end to such indolence and dissipation.’ Talking to Berta, Nevinson recites the creed well, even if his heart is no longer fully in it: ‘If the enemy has no scruples, then the side with scruples is doomed to defeat … Someone has to remain alert so that everyone else can rest.’

The philosophical side of the argument is stronger than the moral claim, since it rests on a pair of restless queries. Is doing nothing the same as not doing something? Is it always better to have done something than to have done nothing? It’s not that we can’t answer these questions: we do it all the time. We just can’t stop them from coming back. This is where Nevinson’s major allusions take us. I’ve mentioned Macbeth, which becomes a story of a couple who did what they dreamed of and were unusually articulate about paying the price. ‘We have scotch’d the snake,’ we read. ‘Duncan is in his grave … treason has done his worst.’ ‘Nought’s had, all’s spent.’ ‘The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures.’ Another recurring reference is Fritz Lang’s film Man Hunt (1941), in which a character has a chance to kill Hitler. He doesn’t take it, though he plays with the idea, as ‘a rehearsal, a pantomime, an amusement – a stalking sport’. The language here is very similar to that in which Nevinson describes his relation to Berta when he (temporarily) leaves the secretive world: ‘A poor imitation, a parody, a painting, a shadow’. Nevinson’s ‘mission’, as he sees it, the identification and taking out of whichever woman he decides on, is ‘of the punishment or revenge variety, not the avoidance of an individual crime or a killing (not at least immediately)’. Clearly there is a difference between what the woman did and what she might do, but the parenthesis ruins the very distinction Nevinson is clinging to. How are we to separate belated revenge from pre-emptive murder?

An intimate, related version of this question brings together both of Marías’s late novels. Through the dreadful example of the killing of Miguel Ángel Blanco, Berta and Nevinson begin to understand each other’s worlds as they never have before. ‘Those people,’ Berta says of the terrorists, ‘don’t deserve to be treated with a clemency they never give anyone else … I don’t want to see them arrested or tried or in prison. I just want to see them dead, and I don’t care how.’ Nevinson, as the doubtful expert in such matters, a member of the group of what he calls ‘nasty angels’ converting secret intelligence into hidden action, accuses Berta of hypocrisy, graphically asking her which mode of murder she would prefer. ‘Would you shoot them in the back of the head, would you slit their throats?’ Clearly he wants to take her angry rhetoric as justifying the way he has handled his career, but that isn’t going to work. He comes close to thinking it does. Only an ‘as if’ separates him from victory. ‘She smiled a knowing smile, as if acknowledging that I was quite right, and that I had placed her in an impossible and, for her, inconceivable position.’ But then Berta says: ‘You know I would do neither of those things, that I’d be quite incapable of that.’

Nevinson’s problem is that he has to take Berta’s angry words literally or not take them at all, and he thinks she has created a ‘mist’, because she, like so many others, can’t bear the clarity of certain days. This, I think, is where Nevinson and Marías part company, or the first outs himself as the second’s instrument, and we have to think about where we are. With any luck we aren’t killers, as Nevinson has been and may be again. But perhaps we should, in a way, take Berta’s words literally as an expression of despair and a longing for justice. There are occasions when we need the mist, when perhaps we can say what we mean only by saying too much, and one of the tasks of fiction is to help us out.

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