A Wilderness of Mirrors: On Javier Marías’s “Tomás Nevinson”

July 5, 2023   •   By William Flesch

Tomás Nevinson

Javier Marías

TOMÁS NEVINSON came in from the cold in Berta Isla (2017; English trans. 2018), the late Javier Marías’s previous novel, to which his newest, Tomás Nevinson (2021; English trans. 2023), is a pendant. (You can read this one independently: the major spoiler in this novel is already given by its title, since Berta—a kind of Penelopedoesn’t find out that Tomás, her husband, is still alive until most of the way through the story in the book named after her.) Now, in 1997, Tomás has been asked by Bertie Tupra—the George Smiley figure in many of Marías’s novels—to undertake another mission “in defence of the Realm” (as he repeats several times): to find a woman who played a major role in two horrific terrorist attacks, real ones, launched by Basque separatists 10 years earlier. Somewhat obscure elements of British and Spanish intelligence are cooperating in the hunt since she is half Basque and half Irish, and since she has been involved in the likewise cooperative terrorist activities of the Irish Republican Army and the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the ruthless Basque separatist organization. Tomás himself is half English and half Spanish, and speaks both languages perfectly, which is why he would be a good judge of any linguistic clues the terrorist might let drop. Since the attacks, the woman who helped mastermind them has disappeared into anonymous daily life somewhere. The intelligence services having narrowed down the possibilities, Tupra sends Tomás to work out which of three women she may be—all of whom are now living in a provincial town in northwest Spain—by getting to know them (they don’t know each other). He’s undercover and so is the terrorist, living a life that seems as innocuous as that of the two innocent women.

Like W. G. Sebald, whom he knew and admired, Marías includes photographs in his novels of some of the real-world events or objects they are about, in this case a single photo—anticipating so many 9/11 photos—of a member of the civil guard rushing through debris with an injured child in his arms. (Marías also makes it easy to google other photos and other personages, most notably the poor 29-year-old Miguel Ángel Blanco, whose kidnapping and murder in July 1997 catalyzes the last sequence of the novel.) The events surrounding 9/11 cast a shadow over the story, which is narrated, as Tomás says, in about 2020—that is, the year that Marías finished it. Tomás, the narrator, mentions the attacks on the Twin Towers twice (as having changed everything about attitudes towards hunting down terrorists), just as he mentions Francoist Spain—a recurring reality for Marías’s characters and for Marías himself. His father, the philosopher Julián Marías, was blacklisted by Franco and might well have been executed had someone in better odor with the regime not intervened (Marías Jr. tells the story in his astonishing 1998 memoir Dark Back of Time). Julián moved his family, including young Javier, to the United States, where Marías grew up perfectly bilingual, though one could hear his Spanish accent when he spoke English.

While Bill Clinton helped shepherd in the Good Friday Agreement during the time of the novel, he refused several chances to kill Osama bin Laden because of his fears of collateral damage. Of course, he didn’t know that 9/11 was coming. Marías seems to have this fact in mind when, at the beginning of the novel, Tomás retells two stories about people who might have killed Hitler—one the fictional story in Fritz Lang’s 1941 movie Man Hunt, about a hunter who has Hitler in his sights a month before the German invasion of Poland but hesitates too long; the other, Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen’s true story about the visceral disgust that Hitler caused in him as early as 1920, and about his guilt at his failure to kill Hitler when he had a chance in 1932. In a way, these are versions of the trolley problem in moral philosophy, as is Tomás Nevinson: what is the morality of killing someone to prevent worse carnage? Not that Hitler was innocent in 1932, nor that bin Laden was innocent in 1998. But the death of bin Laden would have also meant the deaths of innocent people nearby, and Clinton apparently couldn’t and wouldn’t be a party to that. In the most intense scene in the novel, Tomás will have to decide whether to kill the woman who is almost certainly the terrorist, on the basis of near but not absolute certainty. If he does, the other two women will be safe. If he doesn’t, Tupra and his Spanish counterpart will kill all three of them to make sure that the one who is a terrorist will not strike again, killing scores of innocents, even if the cost of their precautionary action is the lives of the two innocent women.

Although the book is a page-turner, it’s also the case that Marías is a great philosophical novelist, one of the greatest European novelists of the last 50 years. His characters brood obsessively, and one of Marías’s great skills as a novelist is to make that brooding completely compelling, hypnotic, and exciting at the same time, in much the same way that Henry James and Marcel Proust do. All Marías’s novels are about the painful subtleties of deception—the deception of others and of self. Marías’s narrators—his novels are all told in the first person, though sometimes the narrator will narrate his or her doings in the third person, especially when Tomás is telling the story of the disguised figure he puts on when undercover—have to mislead those they are involved with, either to betray them or to prevent someone they are close to from learning something they would find devastating. But these two modes are not as different as they might seem: to betray someone means you have to become close to them, and to become close to someone, you actually have to feel close to them, especially if they too are spies, no matter what side they’re on. This is where the self-deception comes in: to become close to them, you have to see them differently from the way you might otherwise, and deceive yourself (especially in Tomás Nevinson, but in all of Marías’s fiction) into thinking that the person you have become close to is innocent. Self-deception is an old philosophical paradox; in Marías, it takes the form of distinguishing between what you think and what you know, and believing that some of what you know is something you only believe, in the hope that beliefs are sufficiently less reliable than knowledge.

There’s a paradox here, one that Marías and Freud share: they reject the standard view that our beliefs are less reliable than we think, that they represent wishful thinking. The problem is that beliefs are far more reliable than we want them to be. Wishful thinking plays an important but secondary role here in helping us convince ourselves that we don’t believe what we in fact do believe. Where for Freud it’s the role of the analyst, in Marías it’s the role of Tupra (the George Smiley figure) to perceive what the people they’re analyzing don’t themselves perceive about their own beliefs. In the great trilogy Your Face Tomorrow (2002–2007), the narrator and main character, Jacques Deza (another one of Tupra’s agents), is supposed to observe people being questioned and give his reaction. It’s not that Deza’s opinions are right—they may or may not be, but the novel implies that they generally aren’t—it’s that Tupra is able to interpret his highly perceptive and naive, or even wishful, reactions. To use a term from narrative theory, Deza and Tomás are like narratees, the “implied readers” to whom the narrator tells a story, whereas Tupra is like a deep reader, able to ascertain from the narratee’s reactions and interpretations just what the narrator is trying to imply, and why and what the narratee is trying to avoid knowing. As Tomás says to Tupra: “If you think me perfectly capable of identifying her, that must be because you’ve seen something in what I’ve told you that I have failed to see.”

It’s for this reason that a certain kind of psychologically subtle novel works so well when it takes espionage as its subject—from Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, and John le Carré to Rachel Kushner (whose first novel is in some ways a response to Greene), Lee Child, and Javier Marías—and why a certain kind of literary reader might be drawn into spycraft in real life: most infamously, perhaps, James Jesus Angleton. The notorious head of the CIA’s Special Investigations Group, which he made the strangest and most secretive part of the agency, Angleton called spying, especially counterintelligence, “a wilderness of mirrors.” (Norman Mailer based Hugh Montague—or Harlot, as he’s called in the fictionalized CIA of Mailer’s 1991 novel Harlot’s Ghost—on Angleton.) It shouldn’t be surprising that Angleton got the phrase from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Gerontion.” (Tomás explicitly tells us that Eliot is his favorite poet.)

Angleton was an English major at Yale, a poet, and a co-founder of the Yale literary magazine Furioso, for which Ezra Pound was a sort of mentor and to which William Empson contributed. Angleton also invited Empson to read at Yale, and later, while in the CIA, made Empson’s great literary-critical book Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) required reading for the agents he supervised. His own intelligence work during the Second World War, after he graduated, was supervised by Yale professor of English Norman Holmes Pearson, who served in the counterintelligence division of the Office of Strategic Services (he was an expert on Hawthorne, H.D., and Pound, whom he helped save from prison). Because the close reading then being invented by Empson and the New Critics at Yale and elsewhere can reveal unexpected depths and complications—false depths, true ones, false depths masquerading as true ones, and true ones masquerading as false—it’s not surprising that a vocation for close reading and a vocation for counterintelligence should go hand in hand. (Tomás, like all of Marías’s narrators, is steeped in English literature, especially Shakespeare, who gives Marías the titles for most of his books.)

A wilderness of mirrors, seven types of ambiguity: The endless subtleties of deception and interpretation that spying seems to require and that more and more obsessed Angleton (in the end, he never found his way out of that wilderness, and so was even thought by his own deputy to be the major spy he was trying to unmask) have a natural affinity with a certain kind of psychological novel that describes a type of endlessly interiorized game theory. Although he never wrote an actual spy novel (1886’s The Princess Casamassima comes closest), Henry James is probably the most important founder of the kind of novel I have in mind: an Angleton-like character tries to figure out the truth about what certain other people are up to, without looking as though that’s what she’s doing. (Tomás’s wife, Berta Isla, an English teacher, is at one point unable to see him because she is “teaching a class on Henry James.”) As in a James novel, characters in spy stories have to try to work out whether some other character knows what they know, by dropping hints that will only look like hints if they do know and won’t if they don’t. They’ll want to see if that other character replies in kind, also dropping an ambiguous hint to invite a new response. But the ambiguity has to be real and has to be maintained if no one is to give herself away definitively. It’s all about possible communication, with all that communication can imply of both trust and distrust.

In Tomás Nevinson, Tomás is the figure reflected in and by the wilderness of mirrors: the woman he is trying to identify can read him as well as Tupra can, perhaps better. (Some of the story of Tupra’s ability to read Tomás is told in Berta Isla as well.) That very fact might itself be a giveaway, or it might not—since neither Tupra nor Magdalena Orúe O’Dea (the true name of the binational woman they are hunting) is infallible, a fact that gives Tomás his own initiative, though how much initiative he truly has is another type of ambiguity here.

“Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show” here (Tomás quotes Yeats a lot, as well as Eliot, but not that line from “The Statues”). The town Tomás lives in and the two innocent women—but which are they?—represent the ordinary people that terrorism threatens, and that a misapplied revenge also threatens. To return to the trolley problem, Philippa Foot, who conceived it, showed that most of us would tend to steer a car away from five people even if doing so would send it towards one person, but that most of us would not actively push one person in front of a trolley to stop it before it went farther down a track where it would kill five, even though from a utilitarian point of view the results are the same. Tupra apparently would actively kill an innocent or two to save dozens; he thinks (or makes Tomás think he thinks) that it would be expedient for all three to be murdered, in order to prevent an attack that will blow up scores of people. Tomás clearly would not, so Tupra gives him a chance to save the two innocents, but Marías has cooked up a borderline case, where Tomás does have to be considerably more active and goal-oriented than the person who steers the trolley away from the five people on the track. He is presented with a hard case that preserves the essential features of the problem. But Tomás has to do it, has to kill Magdalena; although Tupra thinks he knows which of the three Tomás believes is the true terrorist, Tomás has to confirm the certainty he is hiding from himself by actually taking her out.

But one thing he is not certain of is that she’s the same person she was 10 years ago, just as he is certain that he is not the same person he was 10 years earlier, when he was engaging in the espionage in Berta Isla. So, the tracks of two probabilistic trolley problems intersect. And because Magdalena might be as good at the game as Tupra (she’s Karla to his Smiley), her reactions to Tomás—whichever of the three she is—are also revelatory of what she thinks he believes without knowing he believes it. But we don’t know which of the three women is revealing what she thinks Tomás the agent believes: the other two are relative innocents or only know his half-hidden thoughts about more innocent matters like local politics or gossip or desire.

Evolutionary game theorists talk about a concept called “predator-prey cooperation,” a subset of a more general cooperation between antagonists. The model for this kind of cooperation is something like a game of bridge (which features so centrally in James’s 1904 novel The Golden Bowl): just like in bidding, dropping hints will elicit clues from others since you’ll know that they now know something they didn’t before, clues that will come from the hints they drop in their turn. It turns out—or seems to (this is not a spoiler)—that Magdalena knows how to read Tomás as well as Tupra does. Tupra is playing a game against Tomás the whole novel through—a game partly meant to draw Tomás back into the espionage fold. And he is also playing a game against Magdalena. The other part of the game he’s playing against Tomás is, as I’ve said, to read his actions and interpretations for what lies behind them. He does this not only in order to work out what Tomás really thinks without knowing it, but also to work out what it must be that Magdalena, who he knows might be equally good at the game, has worked out. Her reactions to Tomás (as he reports them) will give Tupra a better measure of her and the danger she represents.

Probably none of this has much to do, at least anymore, with real spying. But it does offer the great literary pleasure of thinking about reading and writing, of taking reading and the subtleties of interpretation as a thrilling subject for fiction. It’s not that we readers feel like spies; rather, it’s like watching a chess game where we are good enough to see how good the moves are, who is willing to sacrifice which pieces to defend the realm and save the king, and what a grandmaster the confabulator of that game, Javier Marías, is.


William Flesch teaches English at Brandeis. He is the author of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (2008).