A retired spy, an incognito woman: the final novel by the late Spanish writer Javier Marías.
Tomás Nevinson, by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Knopf, 640 pages, $32.50
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Javier Marías, the Spanish novelist often hailed as one of Europe’s greatest contemporary writers, passed away last September at age seventy. If his final novel is any indication, he wasn’t pleased with what he saw of the new millennium. Tomás Nevinson (published in Spanish in 2021, and now in English translation by Margaret Jull Costa) is scattered with laments for how things used to be. “I was brought up the old-fashioned way,” the book begins, and its narrator goes on to bemoan the passing of “a lost century that some of us still miss, accustomed as we were to the way the world was then,” singling out restaurant smoking sections, pre-9/11 travel, and the un-PC phrase “hourglass figure” as treasured artifacts of a more “civilized” era.
Tomás Nevinson takes place in the late 1990s; its rueful narrator is the eponymous half-English, half-Spanish spy, first introduced in Marías’s previous novel, Berta Isla (2017). In that book, Nevinson was lured into a career in the British intelligence services that took him far from his Spanish wife, Berta, who for years didn’t know if he was alive or dead. Now back in Madrid, Nevinson is coaxed out of retirement, against his better judgment, to identify—and, when the true nature of the assignment becomes clear, assassinate—a woman involved in a pair of decade-old ETA bombings, currently living incognito in a provincial city.
It’s an intriguing setting for a spy story: the years between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror, when the clandestine arms of Western states were casting about for a purpose. These were also the years when Marías achieved maturity as a novelist, hitting on the approach crystallized in A Heart So White (1992): an urbane first-person narrator who wears his anxious inner monologue like a mask; a structure built around discrete, virtuosic set pieces; the climactic revelation of a woman’s death; long, essayistic passages on the nature of secrecy and unknowability.
During that period, Marías foregrounded his characters’ intimate lives—family secrets, infidelity—but their obsession with whether uncomfortable truths are best concealed or recounted evoked a major political theme in the wider Spanish context: the ongoing debates on historical memory and the “pact of forgetting” that governed the transition from Francoism to democracy. A critic of the post-Franco truce who later turned defensive against the attacks of a younger generation that hadn’t known the dictatorship firsthand, Marías was often a hectoring presence in the opinion pages of El País. But his novels cordoned off a certainty-free zone, where every injunction could be read as its opposite thanks to his narrators’ doubt-plagued unreliability. The technique brings to mind those optical illusions known as reversible figures: Do you see a duck or a rabbit? Are you reading a tough-minded acceptance of the need to forget historical wrongs and stifle grievances, or an illustration of why that’s impossible and hypocritical?
If those books explored the uneasy historical conscience of Spain around the turn of the millennium, Marías’s magnum opus did the same for Europe at large, and more directly. Your Face Tomorrow (published in three volumes between 2002 and 2007) conjured an underworld of spies whose shadowy activity at the margins of a seemingly peaceful society stirred memories of its violent past. The private woes of its main character, the academic-turned-spy Jacques Deza, were entangled with deceptions on a much larger scale: World War II counterintelligence campaigns, Franco-era summary trials, assassinations and betrayals. Deza stood at a twenty-first-century vantage from which these conflagrations appeared both unimaginably distant and unspeakably present, echoed in ongoing bloodshed only fitfully acknowledged in the public sphere. Over the course of the trilogy, he learned just how much brutality still sustained his tranquil European existence. The state no longer loomed in the abusive father figure of a Franco, but neither did it play by the supposed rules of democracy. As Nevinson reflects in the new book, “there always are latent or subterranean or hidden wars, all of which have a basis in deceit.”
Your Face Tomorrow was an ingenious twist on the espionage novel, but Marías’s further experiments in the genre have proved uneven. The trilogy’s plot mechanics hardly required the trade knowledge of a former spook like John le Carré; the business of spying was presented indirectly, through a narrator who knew little of what was really going on and had to reason in typically Marías fashion, that is, speculatively. He adopted a similar strategy for the flabbier Berta Isla, keeping its protagonist ignorant of her husband’s activities. Not so in Tomás Nevinson: here we accompany the spy on his mission, and all of Marías’s exquisitely equivocal what-ifs must be reduced to the banal truth of what-is.
The trouble begins early on, when Nevinson reflects at length, by way of Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and the journals of Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, on the question of whether one might have saved humankind a great deal of suffering by killing Hitler before the start of World War II. It would be tempting to read this passage as a masterful self-parody if it didn’t serve as the novel’s moral fulcrum: Nevinson will be forced to choose whether sparing his target’s life is worth the risk that she might kill again. Alas, this is a stick-figure trolley problem that no amount of doubt can shade in with substance. Even if we’re willing to entertain that the logic of extrajudicial assassination—endlessly rehearsed, questioned, and hesitatingly reaffirmed by Nevinson—may be right or wrong, it’s not particularly believable as presented here; both sides of the reversible figure lack plausibility. Hitler-killing might seem like an attractive proposition to a storyteller obsessed with the way individual agency and freak contingency can torque our fates, but real shadow warriors can hardly waste their time on such fanciful counterfactuals.
Perhaps I’m making an elementary mistake in reading Marías as accepting his protagonist’s judgments—moral and otherwise. Maybe he isn’t as “old-fashioned” as his make-believe spy. But their vocations are explicitly associated: Nevinson twice passes himself off as a writer, and compares the plotting of a murder to his creator’s art. A flash of irony comes through in this gesture, only to illuminate how sorely lacking it is elsewhere. In Marías’s prime, it wasn’t uncommon to find an opinion or anecdote that had clearly been lent from author to character, but rarely could they be read straight. Here the authorial interjections feel indulged, the novelist’s mask slipping to disclose the sneer of the newspaper columnist.
Tomás Nevinson’s ending hinges on a real-life tragedy—the 1998 Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland, which killed twenty-nine people and wounded around two hundred twenty others. Your Face Tomorrow folded in true war stories, but there the historical material was grist for reflection. Here, it’s incorporated into the narrative present and positioned as an outcome (possibly—there’s always room for uncertainty) of the characters’ actions. The effect is unsavory, a cheapening of real sorrow, especially in its suggestion that a fictional murder might have spared the bombing’s victims. Maybe a writer with a more plurally populated imagination—that Dostoyevskian ability to argue an enemy’s case as powerfully as one’s own—could have come closer to history’s heat without burning his fiction so badly. If Nevinson’s target were allowed to speak for herself, she might have introduced real moral complexity through counterpoint. But Marías was always narrow and aloof, his debonair, conjecture-mad heroes always aspects of himself. They worried at discomfiting truths and raised questions their author couldn’t answer, caught between the weight of a traumatic past and the dishonesty of a present built on denial. Marías may be gone, and his late work disappointing, but I suspect that his inquisitive ghosts will be with us for some time. They still have too much to say to a century they hold in contempt.
Will Noah is a writer and translator based in Mexico City. His work has appeared in the Baffler, BOMB, n+1, and the New York Review of Books, and he is a member of the Criterion Collection’s editorial staff.