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Empty Suits

On Javier Marías’s spy fiction

In the winter of 1997—January 6, to be precise—two men meet for the first time in years in a nameless park in the heart of old Madrid. The encounter is prearranged, though not cordial. This makes sense: we’re witnessing the reunion of an erstwhile spy and his handler, and if the mise-en-scène seems a touch on the nose, well, that’s partly the point, as the handler, one Bertram Tupra, explains:

“I do like to observe the tropes,” he said. “Have you noticed that in every spy movie, there’s always a scene in which two men sit down on a bench as if by chance, as if they had just happened to coincide? Even though there are five empty benches nearby. It’s quite ridiculous. Here at least, that is not the case.”

This, the inciting episode in the Spanish novelist Javier Marías’s last work of fiction, Tomás Nevinson—recently released in a translation by Margaret Jull Costa—tells you almost everything you need to know about Marías’s handling of his spy plots.

To begin with, Marías’s operatives move in a world that’s pungently aware of its fictional predecessors. In one book, a young agent discovers an inscribed set of Bond novels in his mentor’s personal library; in another, a young woman is seen reading Conrad’s The Secret Agent; and it’s not hard to catch, in the frigid scene described above, a gentle allusion to le Carré. A certain chattiness is apparent as well. Especially in his spy fiction, Marías was always less interested in plot than atmosphere: extended ruminations and windbaggy tête-à-têtes pad out his later novels, which grew fatter and more solemn with the years. Finally, we have Tupra himself, the fleshy-lipped, essentially placid, yet quietly sinister spymaster at the center of Marías’s extended universe of espionage fiction—and one of a revolving cast of characters that dates back to 1989’s All Souls.

Tomás Nevinson represents the final entry in one of Marías’s central literary projects—the reimagining, and literarification of, the spy novel—though you’d be hard-put to call it the culmination of that effort. It’s a novel that revels in extraneous detail and mooning about at will; that so relentlessly upends or ignores its genre conventions you can go whole chapters with nary a whiff of the central whodunit; that finds Marías in both a sentimental and a wintry mood; and that, for better or worse, points up some of the pitfalls of relentlessly aestheticizing the genre.

Marías, who passed away last September at the age of seventy, toyed with the conventions of spy novels and thrillers throughout his career. Of the dozen or so novels of his that have been translated into English, nearly half fall cleanly into this genre, while several others feature characters or plot points that are, at the least, espionage-adjacent. In fact, save for two more typical outings—The Infatuations (2011) and Thus Bad Begins (2014)—the last twenty years of his career were given over entirely to an exploration of spy fiction.

His attraction to the genre isn’t terribly hard to pin down. Marías’s thematic hobbyhorses—among them parallel chronologies, alternate selves, and the existential vertigo kicked up by our contemplation of the contingency of living—map cleanly onto the lineaments of a traditional spy plot, with its false identities, double-crossings, and de rigueur flirtation with geopolitical catastrophe. His preference for pressurized, obsessional narratives seems relevant as well. Spy novels, after all, tend to be hermetic and self-contained—as well as, on the whole, broadly conservative in their politics. As Nicholas Dames has pointed out, spy novels “narrow the world to the dimensions of agencies and their rivals or targets,” and have as their “ideological dominant a pessimistic, fatalistic nationalism.” The world of the spy novel is “a world where the revolution will never come,” where the possibility of “rapid change” is replaced by “the glacial melt of national power.” Stasis is ever the endgame, the ultimate mark of a job well done. And while Marías could safely be described, per The New Yorker, as “a pedigreed leftist of the old school,” a certain high-handedness has long characterized his politics.

Marías’s genre outings have been typified by a magpie mentality that rarely ends up managing its many interests in anything resembling a unified way.

The spy novel also allowed Marías to literalize what had always been a somewhat hazy set of philosophical concerns. Since the 1990s, these musings had found a handy container in what Marías deemed, slightly torquing Shakespeare’s phrase, “the dark back of time.” (For his densest treatment of this existential entrepôt, see, not surprisingly, 1998’s Dark Back of Time.) It’s a nebulous category, though the gloss provided in Tomás Nevinson does a good job of capturing its paradoxical extensity—it is, we learn, “perhaps the most densely populated area of all, the resting place of what existed and what did not exist.” Think of it as the dustbin of history, a sort of singularity where actions and thoughts, drifting back along the etiolating stream of time, become so attenuated that it no longer matters whether they happened or not, were acted upon or weren’t.

The melding of reality and fiction, the desperate fashioning of self-narratives, and the acts of violence sometimes necessary to keep these stories from falling apart that inhere in the world of spy fiction find their mirror in the lived experience of Spain post-autocracy: a subject which Marías, in his late career, also became more interested in. (He was twenty-four when Franco passed away in 1975, and thus came to maturity during a period of “historical limbo” when his country’s recent past was actively being negotiated.) One of the products of this turn has been the revelation that Marías’s dark back of time has always had a submerged corollary in the pacto del olvido, the tacit policy of amnesty for past crimes adopted in Spain after Franco’s death.

If this all sounds like a potentially unwieldy layering of themes, rest assured it is. Marías’s genre outings have been typified by a magpie mentality that rarely ends up managing its many interests in anything resembling a unified way. These tendencies are more than apparent in his most sustained literary engagement with the art of spycraft, the Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, comprising Fever and Spear (2002), Dance and Dream (2004), and Poison, Shadow and Farewell (2007). They are narrated by Jacques (or Jacobo, or Jaime) Deza, who first appeared as the nameless narrator of All Souls.

Together, the trilogy represents an almost Proustian amplification of the spy genre, an attempt to transform its tropes and scènes à faire by subjecting them to lengthy excogitation. The most self-consciously suave scenes in a Bond film, for instance—coded conversations occurring in a night club or casino lounge—become the focus of hyperanalytic descriptions that run for hundreds of pages. When spymaster Tupra unsheathes a sword in the bathroom of the nightclub where Dance and Dream is largely set, we’re treated to a temporizing disquisition from Deza on the nature of swords, “the most unnecessary of weapons or the most out of keeping with the times we live in, more even than an arrow and more than a spear, anachronistic, arbitrary, eccentric, so incongruous that the mere sight of it provokes panic, not just visceral fear, but atavistic fear too, as if one suddenly recalled that it is the sword that caused most deaths throughout most centuries,” and so on, in a single sentence that runs over pages, before time inches forward again and the sword, at last, is swung. The mechanics of the spy plot, played out in a nearly narcotized slow motion, reveal themselves as newly, coolly sinister—steady sources of a lingering dread. And the dilatory spirit of the trilogy, naturally, creates ample space for Marías’s trademark philosophizing.

This includes Marías’s newfound interest in world-historical events and themes. In his own oblique way, he ponders World War II and the Spanish Civil War, fascism and historical memory, often through an uncharacteristically personal lens—Deza’s father had fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side, “and, when it was over, had endured a mock trial and imprisonment under Franco.” (It’s a fate that mirrors that of Marías’s own father, Julián Marías. He was reported to the Francoist authorities by an acquaintance who accused him, falsely, of penning a column for Pravda.) Along the way, detours into the post-9/11 hysteria over terrorism, and the attendant bloating of government surveillance practices and budgets, ensure the novels are also perilously au courant. The Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War come in for mentions, as well as comparatively far-flung events like the 2002 attempted coup d’etat in Venezuela. For the most part, this is history as magic lantern show, a fantasia of quicksilver allusions that allow Marías to deliver light elaborations on his chosen themes. But there are moments in the trilogy when the stars of theme and history align, as when Deza’s father considers the violence of the civil war era in Spain:

“People have an incredible capacity willingly to forget the pain they inflicted, to erase their bloody past not just in the eyes of others—their capacity then is infinite, unlimited—but in their own eyes too. To persuade themselves that things were different from the way they actually were, that they did not do what they clearly did do, or that what took place did not take place, and all with their indispensable cooperation.”

Marías’s airy interest in the narrativizing of the self—in alternate chronologies and parallel realities—is suddenly grounded, clearly, in the thorny issue of historical memory. But what’s missing, in this passage, is any evidence of the novel’s genre elements. As elsewhere in Marías’s spy fiction, the concern with issues of deep sociohistorical import and the text’s metaphysically-tinted espionage elements seem to be running on parallel tracks. And while there’s an argument to be made that this light touch is strategic—that Marías relies on a method of resonances rather than direct linkages, the better to tease out the fascistic impulses at the heart of spy fiction—it can still feel odd that the work’s most affecting moments seem totally disconnected from the larger architecture of its spy plot.

Tomás Nevinson functions as a direct sequel to 2019’s Berta Isla, the latter a wry inversion of the spy thriller focusing on the titular spouse of an undercover spy. As Berta’s husband, Tomás is “barred from explaining whole months of his existence” to her, and “ends up feeling he has the right not to explain anything ever.” He finally vanishes for what seems like good, and Berta is forced to come to terms with the force of his complete and total disappearance. When the novel is at its best, the sub rosa and parastatal maneuverings of intelligence organizations that bring regimes tumbling down or, otherwise, produce no discernible change in the world at all, become a sort of metaphor for evanescence broadly considered. “It’s as if what doesn’t happen somehow lacks prestige,” Marías writes. “And it’s the same or worse with what we don’t know.”

At the outset of Tomás Nevinson, Tomás is a few years into his retirement, having returned to Berta, at the age of forty-two, in 1994 or 1995 (Tomás, characteristically, can’t even be sure of the year). Naturally, Berta and Tomás live in separate apartments; as he notes, “It’s hard after such a long separation and such a long apparent death, one grows accustomed to not having witnesses to one’s awakenings or one’s habits.” If this backstory feels hastily filled-in, the reader is reassured of Tomás’s internal climate, one that rather handily precludes any undue worrying over the state of the one real relationship left in his life. “Emotionally numb and desiccated,” he explains, in what’s not quite a sentence.

And yet, Marías manages to find time for what matters—to him. Tomás Nevinson is an all-encompassing book, a hungry book, its sentences always at the ready to roll over and incorporate, like some ectoplasmic blob, another literary allusion, historical aside, or recondite quotation. As with all of Marías’s spy novels, there’s some attempt to weave a philosophical superstructure above the exigencies of scenario and plot. The moral quandary, this time, has to do with the question of extrajudicial killings and whether or not they can be justified, though the novel’s treatment of this issue often feels pro forma.

This isn’t terribly surprising: Marías has always been most interested in the literary and allegorical potential of spy fiction. That’s why all of his spies tend to be gifted with skills that are in some sense, well, literary. Most of them sound alike, trundling ahead in their wryly detached way, expelling fantastic silvery plumes of verbiage—which is to say, they sound like Javier Marías. Take Tomás, for instance, who’s singled out for his ability “to learn and speak languages and to imitate different accents and ways of speaking.” Deza, in turn, is a super-noticer, “a minor Sherlock or, rather, a fake Holmes.” His work consists in “listening and noticing and interpreting and reporting back, in deciphering behaviours, attitudes, characters and scruples, indifferences and beliefs, egotisms, ambitions, loyalties, weaknesses, strengths, truths and contradictions; indecisiveness.” All in all, it’s a checklist of the fiction writer’s responsibilities that Henry James might have happily signed off on.

For all its linguistic flourishes, the plot of Tomás Nevinson is clear-cut. Tomás has been assigned to a small unnamed town in northwest Spain, which he refers to, pseudonymously, as Ruán. It seems that ten years before, immediately after the Hipercor bombing—a terrorist attack perpetrated by the Basque separatist group ETA that killed twenty-one people—three women with hazy backgrounds had moved to Ruán and quickly established new lives there. The higher-ups have determined that one of these women is in fact Magdalena Orúe O’Dea, a half-Northern Irish, half-riojana terrorist who had a direct hand in the bombing. Through whatever means necessary, Tomás must determine which of the three women—Celia Bayo, María Viana, or Inés Marzán—is in fact the sleeper cell, and take her out.

Early reviews have noted the book’s slow, deliberate approach to its subject matter, which is a nice way of saying the pace is magmatic. We follow along as, under a false name, Tomás slowly infiltrates Ruán. He stalks one of Inés’s paramours, a small-time drug dealer, and intimidates him into becoming an informer against her, though nothing much ever seems to result from their periodic meetings; he chats with a local gossip columnist for a couple of chapters, grubbing for dirt that fails to materialize; he begins to tutor María’s young children in English, and while for the most part we’re spared the pedagogical play-by-play, we do spend a lot of time in María’s garden as Tomás converses with her, languidly overthinking things. On top of this, video cameras and microphones have been planted in the homes of two of the women, though the resulting footage, when Tomás reviews it, is a bust.

Critically, he also initiates a sexual relationship with Inés, who quickly becomes the focus of his suspicions. At the same time, Tomás begins to empathize with Inés and her suspected past, to note similarities between her presumptive circumstances and his own. He learns, for instance, that she has a daughter she was forced to abandon nearly a decade before under mysterious circumstances (during his time living undercover in England, Tomás had fathered a daughter, Valerie).

There’s rarely any deeper psychology to be had in a Marías novel; it’s all contained on the surface, which isn’t a knock.

There’s an exquisite irony in Tomás’s grasping that his quarry is, perhaps, one of the only people he’ll ever meet who could understand him. But Marías hardly plays this for its maximum dramatic potential. “Since I was never that interested in knowing much about myself . . . there was no point in creating parallels between me and Inés,” Tomás later remarks. “What did it matter if we were alike? She was the object of this study, not me.” There’s an obvious argument for intentionality to be made here—because of the nature of his work, Tomás cannot allow himself to reflect, to remember, to feel anything at all. But this aversion to self-awareness also seems related to one of the novel’s most bemusing aspects—that is, Tomás’s almost superheroic incuriosity, about both himself and his assignment. “I didn’t know much about the history of ETA,” he explains at one point, “I’d never felt very interested, not that I did now, nor was I going to read up about it for the sake of what was a purely temporary posting,” and so on.

Perhaps this is a bespoke problem, a brand of fictional rot Marías is particularly susceptible to. There’s rarely any deeper psychology to be had in a Marías novel; it’s all contained on the surface, which isn’t a knock. These are elaborate, baroque surfaces, after all, the syntactical equivalent of an ormolu picture frame, each sentence stuffed to the brim with subtle reticulations and curt involutions. But when Marías’s prose falls flat—as it does more and more often in his later work, and especially in Tomás Nevinson—his characters thin out, their knots and gnarls steamrolled into a beigy sprawl, stippled with absences and inconsistencies.

This thinness affects the book’s ostensible interest in politics as well. The importing of Marías’s generally aesthetic concerns—plus, one imagines, his generally antiquarian soul—leads to a strain of spy fiction that’s strangely obsessed with cultural fascism. Which is to say, there are moments, in Marías, when fascism’s greatest crime is its irredeemable coarseness. At one point in Dance and Dream, for instance, Deza speculates that another character “must have spent some time in Italy, from where perhaps she had been unceremoniously expelled by the brutal, xenophobic, pseudo-Lombardic authorities, who are even coarser and more oafish than our own contemptuous, pseudo-madrileño ones.”

Marías observes the necessary liberal pieties—being “brutal” and “xenophobic,” he’s careful to remind us, is clearly bad—but his mind often seems to be elsewhere, so that the particularities of political action disappear in an opalescent wash of theorizing. “Anything that is visible, a spectacle in the public domain, can never create change,” he writes in Berta Isla, evincing a political fatalism which, even if it is lightly held, tells you precisely where his interests lie. This tendency makes Tomás Nevinson ultimately unsatisfying as a meditation on violence, its thematic concerns—just like its politics—too hazy and discontinuous to end up mattering much, to the reader, or to Tomás himself.

Still, it wouldn’t be terribly accurate to describe the shortcomings of Tomàs Nevinson as symptomatic of Marías’s genre outings, since so many of the book’s problems can be chalked up to the hollowness of its protagonist. In fact, this quality—or lack thereof, since it’s Tomás’s characterological blankness that sets him apart—is more compellingly explored in Berta Isla. Berta spends much of her own novel worrying over Tomás’s fate; should he be killed in the field, she knows, the disappearance will be total. The great irony, of course, is that Tomás already has disappeared. He may be alive, but he can’t be said to have a life in the Maríasian sense—that is, a story to tell, or to contradict. In a touching apostrophe, Berta singles out this lack:

“Yes, I look at your empty suits and it occurs to me that if you were here and I could look at you, you would seem equally empty, complete with sagging pockets and bulges and stains and creases, you yourself would be a hollow space. Absence and silence; or, at most, the repetition of a line like the illegible inscription on a snow-covered stone. At most, a whisper in my ear that I won’t understand.”

Maybe the thought goes on a beat too long, and maybe we’ve heard all of this before, but there’s still something touching in this moment, a pristine sort of honesty. Berta, at last, has come to terms with something, even if it seems her creator hasn’t. In the prose’s flourishes, its barely hidden desire to repeat and rephrase until some kernel of poetic truth has been arrived at, you sense its author’s desire to go on, stubbornly, to find something within nothing—a drive that’s overly evident in Tomás Nevinson as well.

In terms of baseline fictional quality, then, Tomás Nevinson is a regression, though to call it that isn’t really to condemn it. After all, it’s a regression from one of the most notable high-water marks in contemporary fiction, an oeuvre that ranks among the finest produced by a European writer over the last half-century. For all its obvious flaws, it’s still an enjoyable, smart, strangely propulsive read, one that takes Marías’s exploration of the spy genre one step further. It may have been an ill-advised step, but you can’t argue with the directionality.

There are two ways of reading the central Maríasian lesson that we are nothing more nor less than the stories we tell about ourselves. In its negative form, it admonishes us that life is a brittle, insubstantial thing, a story that goes on falsifying itself day after day. In its positive form, it posits that we are constantly inventing ourselves afresh—indeed, that there is something fundamentally life-affirming in the phantasmal nature of the self. Even if we sense that Tomás, by novel’s end, has not managed to fashion a true self, that Marías has, ultimately, failed to provide him with one, his very existence is proof that his author never gave up trying, never ceded his ambition or passion, never ceased his search for new ways of casting order onto life or wrangling the vapors of consciousness into something resembling sense—in other words, that he never stopped inventing himself.