#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews TOMÁS NEVINSON by Javier Marías

Reviewing any novel by Spain’s celebrated author Javier Marías is always daunting (how can we possibly do justice to the great man’s prose?), but to review his final work, published in Spanish in 2021 and English in 2023, is especially intimidating.

When Javier Marías died in September 2022, we lost a leading literary light – a novelist, short-story writer, essayist and translator revered across the world. Tomás Nevinson, his 634-page ‘lockdown’ book (he signed off the Spanish manuscript in October 2020) is as erudite, witty and warm as any of his sixteen novels, but knowing of his death, knowing that these are the last words, makes each page more precious and poignant. Daunting also, it must be said, because of the novel’s length and long sentences (one sentence, I counted, had seventeen lines). Indeed, it takes a few hours to switch off the fast-paced world outside the work and immerse yourself in the rambling musings, the explorations of the human condition, his sweeping literary and historical references. But you do; your pulse rate decelerates, and Marías captures your heart. As a lover of long, immersive novels from France, Germany, Russia and Britain, Javier Marías is my Spanish amor.

From the tantalising opening sentence, we enter the mind of first-person narrator Tomás Nevinson as his thoughts free-associate on the executions of Marie-Antoinette, Anne Boleyn and Joan of Arc. We’ve met the secretive, bilingual Spanish-English M16 agent before, in Marías’s previous novel, Berta Isla, related from the viewpoint of Nevinson’s Spanish wife, Berta. Tomás is now back in Madrid, in his forties, retired from the secret services, and divorced but living close to Berta and their two children, in an attempt to repair relations after decades undercover.

This story begins in 1997, when John Major is still British prime minister, soon to be replaced by Tony Blair, and when the UK government is engaged in the tense negotiations in Northern Ireland that will lead to the Good Friday Agreement. The IRA is active in Northern Ireland, as ETA is in Spain’s Basque region, and the links between ETA and the IRA have long been established. It is this frenzied political atmosphere that prompts Tomás’s former M16 handler to offer him the perfect opportunity to return to his profession. Tomás is reluctant, ‘I had become thoroughly fed up and disillusioned’, but after several chapters of analysis – of the morality of killing and of his own struggles, mistakes and memories – he agrees to return to being useful, because, ‘After having been someone, it’s very difficult to go back to being no one’.

His new prey is a woman – but which one? All he’s told is that she is, like him, bilingual, with one Spanish parent and one British – Northern Irish, in her case. For nearly ten years she has been living incognito in Ruán, an insignificant (fictional) town in north-west Spain. It is believed that she has collaborated with both ETA and the IRA, helped plan atrocities, and, in this heightened situation, might strike again. Tomás Nevinson takes on the name and persona of Miguel Centurión, a new English teacher in Ruán. The narrative voice also splits at this point so that both Tomás and Miguel relate events. The murderous terrorist, we learn, could be one of three local women – Inés, Celia or María – and Miguel’s task is to become close to each of them in order to ascertain which one he must kill and which two are innocent. 

So much for the action, although in truth little actually happens as the investigations are exquisitely character led. There are park-bench, café and bedroom scenes; the novel is baggy in parts, and you occasionally long for Miguel to hurry up and discover his inner 007, but the suspense builds, and we are drawn into the complex inner lives of the three women, looking for clues. Miguel/Tomás/Javier clearly adores women; he describes, understands and respects them profoundly, and as a reader, this is immensely satisfying. No observation is made cheaply, no literary sacrifices are made to drive the plot forward. The knowledge that Javier Marías himself was a fluent English speaker, and familiar with the life and literature of Spain, the UK and the US, adds to the novel’s authenticity. Here is also the appropriate place to pay homage to Margaret Jull Costa, Javier Marías’s main English voice and translator for thirty years. When you finish the novel, don’t whatever you do skip the Afterword, when Jull Costa writes about her feeling of ‘bereavement’ at his death, the end of a relationship ‘rather like a marriage, except that you are married not to the person, but to their voice’.

Much has been written about Javier Marías. He tackled the big themes, the politics and crimes of history, as well as personal morality and responsibility, and the smaller, intimate details of daily life. His pursuit of truth through literature was lifelong. Literature mattered to him, witnessed powerfully in this, his final novel: when his investigations flag, Miguel decides that in order to delve more deeply into the back-ground of the town’s inhabitants, and indirectly into that of the three key suspects, he will ‘interview’ Florentín, the local newspaper columnist, ‘the town’s watchman, the man who nothing escapes’, explaining that he is researching a novel he plans to set in Ruán. This is a scene full of warmth and humour, as the two men riff on appearance and reality, small-town crooks and corruption (versus ‘the truly shameless and the pompous’ Madrid) and on performance, art and literature. It’s a fitting epitaph to Marías himself:

‘Literature allows us to see people as they truly are, even though those people do not exist but who, with luck, will always exist, which is why literature will never entirely lose its prestige.’

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

Tomás Nevinson

By Javier Marías

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Published by Hamish Hamilton (2023)

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Rosie Goldsmith is director and founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018-2020.

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Category: The Spanish RiveterApril 2023 – The Spanish RiveterReviews


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