There he is again, Bertram Tupra, the evil spirit of London's Secret Service, the man of many aliases, many shady machinations and many dirty tricks - as obscure, fascinating, charming and nefarious as we have seen him from the previous Secret Service novels by Javier Marias know. We first encountered Tupra in this author's opus magnum, The Face of Tomorrow, a trilogy of novels, and witnessed the diversity of his manipulative talents, from subtle seduction while recruiting agents, to tormenting the soul of his subjects, to archaic violence. In the novel's ludicrous key scene, Tupra threatened to cut off a man's head with a "Katzbalger," an antique mercenary sword.
And five years ago in the novel "Berta Isla", Anglo-Spaniard Tomás Nevinson, Berta's husband, first fell into Tupra's clutches. As a student in Oxford, he was recruited by Tupra as an undercover agent for the British foreign intelligence service MI6, or rather: blackmailed into cooperation. With an elaborate murder staging, Tupra had lured the unsuspecting student into a trap and made him compliant through deception.
Since then, Nevinson has been forced into an agonizing double life, which he has to keep secret from his wife in Madrid while he goes undercover for years abroad and most recently had to go into hiding in the English countryside for twelve years. The tormentor Tupra insists on delivering the false news of her husband's death to Berta personally.
It is natural to regard the novel as the capstone of a large narrative structure
So now "Tomás Nevinson", the counterpart and a kind of sequel to "Berta Isla", the novel about fraud, deception and a great love betrayal, told primarily from the wife's perspective. Here the eponymous hero is once again haunted by Bertram Tupra and maliciously coerced into a spy operation. This time he is ordered to a northern Spanish provincial town for a longer period of time. Disguised as an English teacher, he is supposed to identify and possibly murder the three women who are known by name and who live there quite bourgeoisly, as a teacher, as an innkeeper, as a politician's wife, and possibly murder the one behind whom a dangerous terrorist of the Basque underground movement Eta is supposedly hiding.
Javier Marías presents the complementary twist on Berta's marriage narrative, now from the point of view of her stray, secretive husband. The fact that this most recent Marías novel has now also become his last due to the author's untimely death from Corona increases the importance of the book. It is natural to regard the novel as a kind of keystone in a large narrative structure.
If one surveys the sixteen novels of Marías' complete work, it is striking that for the bilingual author, who oscillates between the Spanish and the English language world, there are two intellectual focal points - the poles Spain and England, Madrid and Oxford/London - and two literary genres, the bourgeois marriage novel and the secret service thriller. The marriage novel (from "My Heart So White" to "The Mortal Lovers" and "That's How the Bad Begins") always gravitates towards the setting of Madrid, while the secret service novel usually has the settings of Oxford and London.
He likes to confront his characters directly and immediately with death right at the beginning
His marriage novels are cosmopolitan metropolitan stories of today, elegant stories from the educated, well-off, lively and eloquent Spanish bourgeoisie. Marías describes its mentalities, codes of behavior, ways of life and ways of thinking, and plays through its characteristic themes and motives: the endless misunderstandings between man and woman; the dubiousness, deceit and self-deception in love; the hardships, uncertainties, and daring of attempting marriage today.
He likes to give his well-mannered characters a thorough shake-up right from the start by confronting them immediately and abruptly with death. On the first pages of the novel, Marías usually has a dead person lying around. Violent death, suicide or murder is the leitmotif common to his marriage and espionage novels. The opening sentence of "Tomás Nevinson" is also immediately about murder: "I was brought up the old school way and never thought that one day I would be asked to kill a woman."
But it doesn't matter whether it's a marriage novel or a spy story: Marías always proves to be a master of literary framing. He uses these conventional narrative formats in order to break them up and playfully interchange them, particularly clearly in the novel diptych about the married couple Berta Isla and Tomás Nevinson. In the narrative pattern of the spy thriller, a marriage is told here that is based on lies, deceit, deceit and self-deception from the start and can only result in estrangement.
The woman wonders who the stranger is who lies in bed next to her night after night
It's about the impossibility of really knowing the other - with Tomás, the feeling of increasing de-realization of reality and the loss of self behind all the roles and false identities that he has to assume professionally; and for Berta, the feeling of her husband's increasingly ghostly shadowiness, who becomes more and more unrecognizable to her until she wonders which stranger is lying next to her in bed. Tom's double life and Berta's suspicions poison and corrode this marriage. In the end, the most that is still possible for this couple is a friendly interaction at a cautious distance, with two apartments within walking distance.
After all, Tomás breaks the duty of confidentiality for the first time and lets Berta in on what his agent leader Tupra is expecting of him. And for the first time since his fateful recruitment back at Oxford, he rebels against his demon Tupra, resists, refuses, and shies away from his assignment. Perhaps, through his admitted weakness and failure, he finally exorcised the evil spirit. It seems he'll be fine with Tupra's contempt for the future.
But are this author's secret service stories real espionage thrillers? Marías has developed a peculiar and very personal narrative form for his thrillers. He abolishes the suspense dramaturgy by subjecting the narrative time to extreme time stretching, radically slowing down the narrative pace and repeatedly bringing the action almost to a standstill, but without - and this is no small feat - affecting suspense and tension and losing sight of his main business to lose.
Despite all the digressions, the whole narrative machine keeps going
Again and again the plot is interrupted by all kinds of digressions, flashbacks, digressions and insertions, the narrated time is stretched by the narrator's considerations, memories and reflections (often it is the author's own voice that becomes audible behind the brooding). But despite all the digressions, the whole narrative machine always keeps going, working digressively and progressively at the same time. Of course, Marías owes this poetics of digression to a completely different master, namely Laurence Sterne, whose "Tristram Shandy", one of his life books, he translated into Spanish.
Certainly: "Tomás Nevinson" is not for impatient readers. You have to want to get involved with the rhizome-like reference system of this emblematic narrative universe, with the whole wealth of relationships, allusions, motif reflections and hidden quotations, from Shakespeare to TS Eliot, from John Milton to Hölderlin. The novels of this great European author are hybrid structures - at the same time metaphysical epics and deep moral investigations into evil, human cruelty and freedom.
Reflections on the abysmal human nature combine with reflections on morality, history and politics. Seen as a whole, the works are bundled into a century-long narrative about power, violence and guilt, espionage and betrayal, lies and manipulation, conscience and remorse, always against the background of the aftermath of the long-suppressed and unresolved Franco dictatorship. And "Tomás Nevinson" appears as the culmination of this oeuvre.
Javier Marias: Tomás Nevinson. Novel. Translated from the Spanish by Susanne Lange. S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt/Main 2022. 736 pages, 32 euros.