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Javier Marías: Tomás Nevinson

We have met Tomás Nevinson before. He is the protagonist of Javier Marías’ previous book Berta Isla (Berta Isla), Berta Isla being his unfortunate wife.

Nevinson had an English father and Spanish mother. He went to Oxford University where a don, Peter Wheeler, tried to recruit him for the British secret service. Nevinson flatly refused. However, he was involved in an unpleasant incident. He is faced with two choices: prison or the secret service. He chooses the latter. He marries Berta and they will have two children but hs is often absent and, as we know, gets involved in two major conflicts: Northern Ireland and the Falklands. At the beginning of this book, he has left the secret service by mutual agreement and returned to his old job, working in the British Embassy in Madrid. Berta had assumed he was dead but he turns up (physically) unharmed. They resume a life together, though living separately. The life includes regular visits and occasional sex. We learn that he has a daughter from a relationship he had while under cover, though he has no contact with her or her mother for some time. We know he has had many other romantic/sexual relationships.

He left the secret service in 1994. It is now 1997. He is contacted by his old boss, Bertram Tupra, whom he did not like, who wants to meet him in Madrid. It is 6 January, Día de los Reyes, i.e. Epiphany, a big public holiday in Spain, equivalent to Christmas in other parts of the word, with gift-giving. It is also cold but Tupra wants to meet in a park (less chance of being bugged).

The meeting is long – a good one hundred pages – as they beat around the bush, talk about the job, about Shakespeare and history (it is generally agreed that secret service agents are cultivated), about the woman sitting nearby reading Chateaubriand in French, whom Nevinson thinks is a spy for Tupra, about Tupra’s surprising recent marriage and about the job he wants Nevinson to do.

Nevinson initially flatly refuses. (The presence of Tupra always signified death.)However it turns out that this is not an official job but one Tupra wants done as a favour to a Spanish colleague, Jorge. In 1987 the Hipercor bombing took place, a car bomb detonated by the ETA, the Basque separatist group. It killed 21 people and injured 45. Everyone was horrified by it as it was not a military target but killed and maimed ordinary shoppers, primarily women and also some children. The perpetrators (including, unusually, a woman) were caught and imprisoned. However, Tupra maintains that another woman who, while not directly involved, helped plan and organise the attack, She has never been found. Tupra has photos of three possible suspects. He wants Nevinson to find her and eliminate her.

So once again, Berta is told he is leaving for an unspecified time and off he goes to an unnamed north-western Spanish city. The city is called Ruán, which is the Spanish for Rouen. Spanish critics have suggested it is Pamplona, because of the mist which both cities get but that is in the North-East of the country. I am suggesting León, not least because that is in the North-west,. However I have never visited León so it is a wild guess and, in reality, it is probably an amalgam of various cities, arbitrarily plonked in the North-West.

He sets up as an English teacher to give him cover and sets out to find the women – not difficult as he has the names and addresses. All live in Ruán, Two are married and one is single, though it is not clear if she has never been married, is widowed or divorced. He, of course, discovers the true situation. He spends his time getting to know the women. It is obviously easier to get to know the single woman and it is obvious he is going to sleep with her. He knows little about the woman but he does know her real name and that she is half Northern Irish (and therefore with IRA connections) and half Spanish.

He also gets to know other locals, including the local drug dealer, the local gossip columnist and others who may be able to give him information.

He finds clues showing that each of the three may be the guilty party but, equally, clues suggesting that she is not. Indeed, he is almost convinced that none of the three is guilty. There is, after all, no convincing evidence for any of the three.

Things change when Miguel Ángel Blanco is abducted and then executed by the ETA. There is an outpouring of grief in Spain and the authorities worry what the consequences might be. Nevinson is summoned to London for talks and criticised for not finding the guilty party. Indeed, it is London who suggest to him, with a certain amount of circumstantial but convincing evidence, who the guilty party is. He is given clear instructions what to do.

While we are following the story, Marías is making it clear that, while the story is interesting, what is more interesting are both the morals behind it and the mechanics of how the various protagonists carry out their activities. The main moral issue is the justification for killing someone who either has committed or may commit horrendous crimes but may escape conventional justice, because of lack of evidence that would satisfy a conventional court of law.

The Hipercor bombing and, later in the book, the abduction and execution of Miguel Ángel Blanco were horrendous crimes but is it acceptable to kill someone who was seemingly indirectly involved? Marías, Nevinson and Tupra have their views on the matter, as, no doubt do we and they slightly differ. When he raises the issue with Berta, she agrees in principle, that it is justified but there is no way she would be able to kill someone in cold blood for such a crime. Nevinson’s situation is more complicated by the fact that it is he who has to do the killing and that he has become friendly with all three women, including a sexual relationship with one of them. Moreover, he is not convinced that any of them are guilty. In addition, if they are guilty, what are they guilty of? He never finds out. He only knows that she in some way assisted the ETA killers but did not take part directly.

This issue – extrajudicial killing of a criminal – is raised quite clearly at the beginning of the book in two references. The first is the 1941 film Man Hunt based on Geoffrey Household’s novel Rogue Male. A later version of the film had that title. It opens with the title Somewhere in Germany shortly before the War. We see a hunter (played by Walter Pidgeon), walking through a forest with his hunting rifle. He comes to a ridge, lies down, and looks down. We cannot see what he is looking at. He gets out his binoculars and looks through them and smiles. He then gets a telescopic lens out of his rucksack and fits it to the rifle. He looks through the lens and, finally, we see what he is looking at. One is a man in a naval uniform. The other is Adolf Hitler. The crosshairs are firmly on Hitler’s chest. He squeezes the trigger and there is a click. He has no bullet in his rifle. He seems to be about to leave, when he changes his mind and loads a bullet into the rifle. He takes aim but, as he is about to fire, a German soldier leaps onto him.

Remember that this was set before the war and while Hitler’s crimes were known, he had yet to invade Poland and other countries and the full extent of the concentration camps, the Holocaust and so on were not known.

Marías also refers to a real life situation. Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen was a German author. He is best known for the diary he kept about his opposition to Hitler, which was published after his death. It appeared in English as Diary of a Man in Despair. (Marías erroneously says that it appeared in English as Diary of a Desperate Man; that is its Spanish title, i.e. Diario de un desesperado.) Reck-Malleczewen met Hitler four times and describes how he saw Hitler dining alone in a Munich restaurant, and expresses regret that he had not shot him dead when he had the chance.

These two stories – the fictitious film and real account – appear several times in the book with reference to the issue of extrajudicial killing of a criminal. Reck-Malleczewen clearly regrets his failure to do so and Thorndike, the hunter in the film, seems to be about to change his mind when he is caught. In this book Nevinson has the chance to kill someone who not only is indirectly responsible for vicious crimes but may strike again, yet, though he has already killed, he has some qualms about doing it again, not least as the target is a woman.

Marías as always tells his story well and raises the moral issues as well as as the mechanics, not least of which is, as with Reck-Malleczewen, the opportunity to carry out the killing may not reoccur. What would you do?

Publishing history

First published in Spanish in 2021 by Alfaguara
No English translation