Javier Marías’s last hurrah


Javier Marías’s last hurrah

LOUIS GAIGHER is once again carried away by the brilliance of a Spanish writer who passed away in 2022.


IN his last novel, Tomás Nevinson, which appeared in English exactly six months after Javier Marías' death at 70 on September 11, 2022, the most acclaimed post-war Spanish writer returns to the espionage world of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (2002–2008) and the background of Berta Isla (2017).

His thematic concerns (betrayal, unknowability, disclosure, perilous knowledge and history's aftermath), literary references, moral issues and anglophilia are all present in this novel. As is the voice his English-speaking readers have come to know via Margaret Jull Costa's translations over 30 years. (Jull Costa's afterword in Tomás Nevinson is also poignant, especially read alongside the 939th and last column Marías, himself a respected and eager translator, wrote for El País.)

Even though his last few books — larger in page scope and slightly cumbersome — lack the vitality and focus of his best work, novels from the nineties with Shakespearean titles and known in English as A Heart So White, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me and Dark Back of Time, it's a joy to be carried away for the last time by Marías' agility with narrative time versus narrated time, and his unique sensibility that unfolds in long scenes and spun-out sentences with twists, tonal variations, contradictions and a host of references.

Tomás Nevinson was introduced to readers in Berta Isla as an Anglo-Spanish polyglot and master imitator. As a student at Oxford, he was implicated in the British intelligence service against his will. When he sets out on missions in the 1980s, we stay behind in Madrid with his young family and his childhood sweetheart, Berta Isla, who weaves the stories of his wanderings out of rumours, absences, impending mischief and distractions.

Nevinson maintains his work is mostly clerical and concerned with the “protection of the realm", or the protection of the normal order during peacetime. Given British diplomatic hotspots of the time — Northern Ireland and the Falklands — it is highly probable that Tomás's life is dangerous. In the book's strongest scene, external danger penetrates Berta's household in an almost carnivalesque way. It involves an awkward couple, a babbling arsonist and a baby bed. During a long disappearance, Berta is informed that Tomás has died and, like Balzac's Colonel Chabert, his return after a decade has unforeseen consequences. 

In Tomás Nevinson, we meet Tomás in Madrid as a retired spy and outcast official in his mid-40s. He has become estranged from Berta. Tomás heeds the metatextual “temptation to write another chapter, the idea that I had not finished my own little book" by accepting one last assignment. The mission gives us a further perspective on the life that Berta imagined at the time as well as a wonderful description (another nod to Balzac) of the “monotonous, cosy routines ... like a lullaby, a lethargic rocking” and strata of a northern Spanish province city, the fictional Rouán, from the drug dealer to the intrigues of trade and politics. This is new terrain for Marías, who used to be the most urban-minded writer and a lover of Madrid, London and Oxford.

The assignment involves Tomás posing in Rouán as a teacher, Miguel Centuriòn, in order to infiltrate the lives of three women and find out which of them went underground 10 years earlier after her involvement in two attacks by the Basque separatist group, ETA. Furthermore, the fugitive is of Irish origin and an envoy of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and also known as Molly O'Dea.

It could have fatal consequences for hardworking restaurant owner Inés, sparkling teacher Celia and bored trophy bride Maria to have red hair or whistle an Irish tune: Tomás' assignment was, euphemistically “to take the woman out of the picture". The contract murder “is of the punishment or revenge variety, not the avoidance of an individual crime or killing (at least not immediately)”. The parenthesis, typical of Marías, undoes the distinction and points to the ethical dilemmas of extrajudicial execution and preemptive murder, a theme that is also explored on the basis of history. 

The opening advice in Fever and Spear, the first part of Your Face Tomorrow, that “one should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, One-eyed oblivion", gains further moral implications by the placement of a newspaper photograph of a wounded child in a bombed wasteland at the beginning of the book. The ETA attacks that serve as the backdrop for the far-fetched fictional mission actually happened and civilians, including children, were killed and maimed. Marías also presents a counterfactual history of an actual terrorist attack in Northern Ireland as the result of Tomás's lateness.

Is it ethical to relate real suffering to a plotline that has its own logic and little in common with an external reality? And in reference to Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others, does the inclusion of this photo lead to more complete understanding of and empathy with the pain of others? Does the use of the photo confirm a particular narrative to the exclusion of others and serve as justification for silencing “Molly O'Dea", ETA and the IRA?

Bertram Tupra, Tomás's handler, is known to readers as the handler of Jacques Deza, the narrator of Your Face Tomorrow. Tupra is, according to Tomás, “always filled with confidence and, at the same time, sends 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."

Jacques might as well have been the narrator here, if you bear in mind the assault scene he observes in the second part of Your Face Tomorrow and which spans 150 pages — the most brutal and violent scene I've read and Marías's tour de force. His view of Tupra, the way in which the intelligence service resembles the mafia, and his own guilt are consistent with Tomás's narrative. In fact, the two narrators are so interchangeable in terms of diction and narrative voice that it seems like self-parody, with Tomás just a tad more sneering and prone to criticism of the current zeitgeist.

Marías's narrators show similarities to him and to each other in terms of work, mindset, frame of reference and a compulsive propensity for speculation. Yet the overlapping is at the level of identity and disintegration. It seems that people who find themselves in the same situation, such as Jacques and Tomás, tend to show similarities. As Tomás also notes about another overlap: “So Maria Viana is like me and like Berta, or as we both were for a long time and possibly again now: those who merely exist and wait."

Marías uses first- and third-person narration simultaneously for Tomás in his undercover state: “Needless to say, I made my own inquiries, and needless to say, Centuriòn found out what he could." When Tomás tells of his visit to Guillermo Cabrera Infante, it becomes a game with identity in which reader and writer both revel. He was posing as a Spanish writer.

A Spanish writer posing as an Anglo-Spanish spy posing as a Spanish writer — vintage Marías!

♦ VWB ♦

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