Tomás Nevinson by Javier Marías (Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa) - review by James Womack

James Womack

Spy Games

Tomás Nevinson


Hamish Hamilton 656pp £22

Javier Marías died on 11 September 2022. If we ignore the cast-iron rule of publishing that the first sound any author hears after they die is their publisher cackling as they get ready to scrape the barrel, then Tomás Nevinson is his final novel. It is definitely his sixteenth in a fifty-year career that he launched precociously in 1971 with Los dominios del lobo, written when he was nineteen.

In her affectionate afterword, Margaret Jull Costa, Marías’s long-term and unimpeachable translator, speaks of how it is ‘strange to think that no more 680-page novels, written in that familiar voice, will arrive at my door’. Size matters: one of the most noticeable aspects of Marías’s oeuvre is its progressive gigantism, as he found a way to expand and amplify his style from the relatively disciplined All Souls (1989), which comes home at just over the 200-page mark, to his final sprawling diptych, the two companion novels Berta Isla and Tomás Nevinson, which add up to around thirteen hundred pages.

What’s intriguing is that such a brute growth in page count was not accompanied by a growing intricacy of plot. Marías became a master of stasis, able to keep a reader gripped through his sinuous, discursive style, even when not a great deal is happening onstage. In Berta Isla, for example, thirty-odd pages describe Berta arranging to meet a former lover and then standing him up. In Tomás Nevinson, Tomás, Berta’s husband, spends nine pages semi-politely shaking down a drug dealer. Marías is often spoken of as adopting the tropes of the thriller, but this is the kind of encounter that Mickey Spillane would have dealt with in a paragraph.

Of course, one doesn’t really read Marías for the plot. What keeps the pages turning is his ‘familiar voice’, and the rather woozy way in which his characters seem to be holding themselves together through sheer effort of will. To a certain extent, Marías’s work seems like a half-century-long investigation of José Ortega y Gasset’s famous cogito: Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia (‘I am myself and my circumstance’). How does a character change as their surroundings and circumstances alter? Does anything so straightforward as a single unitary self actually exist? Here Marías’s constant reworking of the spy novel is relevant: in his view the spy, more than anyone else, is the figure who lacks a firm and reliable sense of self, whose life is a constant act of reworking and reorganisation.

In Berta Isla, Tomás Nevinson, half Spanish and with a genius level ear for languages, is recruited at Oxford by some nebulous arm of the British secret service and, after an operation goes wrong, is forced into hiding for more than a decade, only emerging to re-enter a tentative relationship with the long-abandoned Berta when the danger is apparently over. Tomás Nevinson takes up the story. It begins with Nevinson being approached by his handler Bertram Tupra and asked – although Heat this is not – to carry out one last job. A female ETA member, Magdalena Orúe, responsible at least in part for the 1987 Hipercor bombing in Barcelona, is hiding out in a town in northern Spain named Ruán (a semi-transparent version of León), and Nevinson’s job is to discover which of three possible candidates the terrorist is and to deal with her. You know, deal with her.

This contemporary Judgement of Paris is carried out delicately over the course of the novel, but the identity and final fate of the etarra are not really the main focus of Tomás Nevinson, which is much more concerned, as always in a Marías work, with the ways in which the past bleeds into the present and literature bleeds into life. A great part of Berta Isla is devoted to a discussion between Berta and Tomás of the pre-battle scene in Henry V, where the disguised king walks unnoticed among his subjects. The analogous texts in Tomás Nevinson are Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and the diaries of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, both of which describe missed opportunities to assassinate Hitler before the war. They are touchstones in the novel’s many digressions and discussions of whether murder can ever be justified. It is in these that Marías’s style comes into its own, perfectly mimicking the doubts and hesitations that arise before any irreversible action: ‘The problem is that we don’t always get an inkling, let alone the necessary foresight and certainty, and so our finger trembles and hesitates, is about to squeeze the trigger then relaxes, then squeezes again, our eye remains fixed on the target, then blinks and looks away, then looks again.’

I am a big fan of this kind of prose, which moves beyond the discursive into the wilder shores of mimesis, where the barrier between thought and its expression is at its most permeable. However, it would be dishonest not to admit that reading Tomás Nevinson I also got regular flashes of Woody Allen’s monologue on the justifiability of murder in Love and Death, delivered as he stands over the prone figure of Napoleon, wondering if he can bring himself to pull the trigger: ‘If I don’t kill him he’ll make war all through Europe. But murder… the most foul of all crimes. What would Socrates say? All those Greeks were homosexuals. Boy, they must have had some wild parties.’ But it is part of the glory and loveliness of Marías’s writing that it flirts with ridiculousness, is open to it. It is a shame that this is Marías’s final novel. I could have done with a lot more of his ironised, hyper-alert assessment of the world. 

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