Marías, Spanish crime, wokeness and revenge


Marías, Spanish crime, wokeness and revenge

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH is sometimes embarrassed by the books that appeal to him. We all have our guilty pleasures.


JAVIER Marías is one of my writing heroes — on my list of giants just below John le Carré and just above Mick Herron. Especially when he writes about espionage. At his best, he sometimes surpasses them. He's obsessed with morality, and in his novels he always tries to bring in the moral and ethical aspects surrounding the larger intrigue, whether it's espionage or ordinary crime.

Last novel

Marías died in 2022 from Covid-related causes, and his latest novel, Tomás Nevinson, was published in Spanish a year before his death and translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa after his death. The story revolves around a retired spy who is persuaded by his former MI5 handler to follow the trail of three women who may have been involved in Basque terrorism in the nineties, to decide which one is guilty and to expose her mistakes in the way it's done in espionage circles. A good story — it's a Javier Marías book after all. Nearly a third of the book is spent on the assignment Nevinson receives from Bertram Tupra, his former MI5 handler. After that, its pace picks up.

For Marías's admirers, it's pure joy. The novel starts with a particularly typical Marías contemplation on what it entails to act as a true gentleman towards women. Marías meanders in long sentences and short sentences, parentheses and digressions, on the topic of violence against women, ending up with the things that happened around the scaffold in Paris. He has a delightfully bitter way of being serious to the point of absurdity.

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Tomás Nevinson is the second part of a diptych that began with Berta Isla (2019), and Marías brings the story of Berta and Tomás as close as he can to a conclusion. It's worth quoting the poem with which Tomás eventually expresses his deep respect and love for his wife: “How many loved your moments of glad grace, and loved your beauty with love false or true, but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face."

I wouldn't recommend that you start reading Marías with this diptych. These are stories for the connoisseur, for those who can accept the master wasn't at his peak when he wrote them. Tomás Nevinson is a novel of writerly indulgences, and it might feel to the Marías novice as if things just keep going on.

But if you're initiated, you will feel like the people whose heads rolled in Paris at the guillotine, and of whom Marías remarks in the first chapter: when they're forced to walk to the graveyard with their heads under their arms, it's only the first few steps that are difficult.

Tomás Nevinson by Javier Marías was published by Penguin and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.


This book illustrates Ann Patchett's observation about how uncritically people read thrillers about murderers. It's as if we're willing to believe anything because we accept that humans are capable of terrible things. But who could resist when the cover declares it better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? And perhaps Antonia Scott is smarter than Lisbeth Salander, and Mikael Blomkvist is much more run-of-the-mill than detective Jon Gutiérrez, who is overweight and becomes Antonia's partner when the Spanish police (it's set in Madrid) launch their secret project, Red Queen.

We're asked to accept many things. For example, that Antonia and Jon will become partners even though she's not a law-enforcement officer, and that Jon would be trusted to handle the search for the daughter of the world's richest man even though he's actually suspended because he falsified evidence in a previous investigation. And then there's a master criminal named Ezekiel. All right, I enjoyed reading it. But I'm a little embarrassed to admit it. (Translated from Spanish.)

Red Queen by Juan Gómez-Jurado was published by Pan MacMillan and costs R350 at Exclusive Books.


What a fascinating person Susan Neiman is. She is the director of the Einstein Forum (a think-tank), a philosopher, and she is not afraid of cancel culture. Within 148 pages, she tries to demonstrate how wokeness has evolved from the things that the left-leaning political and social spectrum has always stood for (starting with equal human rights) to eventually become something that reduces marginalised people to their cocoon of marginalisation; it tries to correct historical distortions by criminalising and demonising all descendants of those distorters. We know that one all too well.

Ultimately, Neiman exposes the fascist tendencies of wokeness and seeks to restore the dignity of a leftist worldview.

Left Is Not Woke by Susan Neiman was published by Polity Press and costs R552 at Exclusive Books.

Revenge novel

Matt Arlidge caught my attention when he became involved, as a scriptwriter, in the TV series Silent Witness. I've read a few of his novels about Helen Grace, the detective who enjoys pain. It seems Arlidge got tired of Helen, because now he's tackling that greatest challenge for crime writers, the revenge novel.

Eye for An Eye is about criminals whose crimes were so heinous that their identities were never revealed. But someone starts naming them, making them fair game — and the hunt begins for the informant who is exposing the secrets. A really interesting take on the detective novel — and one that cured Neelsie of his obsession with revenge stories.

Eye for An Eye by MJ Arlidge was published by Orion and costs £4.99 at Amazon.

♦ VWB ♦

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