A mist hangs over the river at Ruán. Church bells toll. These may be symbols, but the mist could just as well conceal sinister doings as nothing at all. And the bells, appearing to clamour without pattern, are as good a clue to the passing of time as they are to the void into which they echo. Welcome to the world of Tomás Nevinson, the last novel by the late Spanish master, Javier Marías.
Nevinson, a sleeper agent for MI6, has been dispatched to this sleepy Spanish city to unmask a suspect in an ETA bombing. Little is known of the suspect save a part-Irish provenance and past involvement in the IRA. Intelligence indicates it may be one of three women…
But plot has never been the point for Marías. In his past work, which includes other spy novels, it has functioned as a kind of bobbin from which to draw the threads of what he calls ‘literary thought’
But plot has never been the point for Marías. In his past work, which includes other spy novels, it has functioned as a kind of bobbin from which to draw the threads of what he calls ‘literary thought’: a kind of philosophical inquiry excused of the latter’s duties to logical deduction, reasonable argument, or rigour of any kind. Draw the threads together here and you get a patchwork (and superficially qualified) apologia for state terror. Not that its narrator thinks about it in these terms: the violence perpetrated by Nevinson and his peers is of a pragmatic, almost chivalrous, kind. These ‘rather nasty angels’ only lower themselves to the murky business of unsanctioned surveillance and extrajudicial killing from a sense of noblesse oblige: ‘we are the ones who allow apparently normal life and peace to exist…all those things that we barely notice and take for granted, when in reality, their existence is a miracle…And yet, and yet…’
Nevinson is given carte blanche by his creator to monologise in this vein. When dialogue is used, it is seldom allowed to speak for itself. More often than not, it is followed by lengthy, pedantic editorialising – on why the English language was chosen over Spanish, why the formal over the familiar, why the conspiratorial ‘we’ over the dissociative ‘you’ – with the end result of condescending to the reader and denying them the advantage of another’s perspective. And the shift from first to third-person narration (when Nevinson assumes a new identity) feels like a gimmick because it changes nothing about the way our protagonist acts or feels or thinks. Even Nevinson’s initial reluctance to take on the mission is overcome by his sense that ‘it’s unbearable to be outside once you’ve been inside’.
This formulation of his motive (repeated throughout) never acquires the profound resonances Marías wants it to, because it chimes too closely with Nevinson’s tritely elitist and ultimately uninteresting worldview; and it is this which, more than anything, compromises him as a narrator.
This would all be much more excusable if the prose rose to the standard which made the opening passage of A Heart so White, for example, so justly celebrated. But that passage was narrated by an unassuming translator; a more impartial guide to the deep-seated conflict and closely-guarded secrets of its story than Nevinson could ever be for his. He may be, with the bells and mists of Ruán, another emanation of the void.
Words: Diarmuid McGreal