Tomas Nevinson cover

Killing One to Save Many: Javier Marías’s Tomás Nevinson

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Would it be morally justifiable to murder Hitler before he became the Fuhrer? In Diary of a Man in Despair, the author Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen recounts the time he chanced upon Hitler dining alone in 1936 and his regret at not having murdered the man although he had a loaded gun. In his defense, Reck-Malleczewen acknowledges that he could not have known the monster Hitler would become. Had he known, he surely would have pulled the trigger.

Another could-have-been is portrayed, this time in fiction, in Fritz Lang’s movie Man Hunt. It is 1939, and British Hunter Captain Alan Thorndike, hiding behind a bush with a rifle, entertains the idea of assassinating Hitler, but just as his determination sets in, he is captured by a guard. Without that moment of hesitation, the captain would have saved millions of lives.

These two instances are repeatedly mentioned by the narrator in Javier Marías’s new and final novel Tomás Nevinson (Knopf), who often reminds himself that “nothing is certain until it happens.

Nevinson has reason to repeat the truism. A retired British secret service agent in his forties, he has been living quiet and uneventful days when his past superior Betram Tupra reconnects with him. One last job, Tupra says, trying to recruit him for a new mission: assassinate a suspected terrorist before she plots an attack with mass casualties. The scene depicting the initial conversation between Tupra’s methodical speech to lure Nevinson out of retirement, and Nevinson’s deliberation on whether or not to accept, consumes the first hundred pages of the novel. Nevinson succumbs because he can no longer bear the purgatorial state of his life in retirement; he would rather choose hell where the action is than the safe haven where it is not.

Once on the job, he finds himself in his old world of “assumptions and permanent suspicion, distrust and callousness, of pretense and deliberate betrayals.” Supposedly, his target is an IRA-trained terrorist who masterminded the Hipercor bombing in Barcelona by the Basque Separatist Group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna: “Basque Homeland and Liberty”) that killed 22 innocent civilians in 1987. But there is one caveat: While there is only one terrorist, there are three female suspects—an unmarried restaurateur, a schoolteacher married to a criminal, and the socialite wife of an aristocrat.

Transferred to the small town where the three women live, he pretends to be a novelist writing about the town, befriending a local journalist, a drug dealer, and a politician, all to winnow down the suspects. Nevinson acquaints himself with the women, cautiously at first, although the restauranter soon becomes his lover. But the hiatus during retirement has impaired his acumen. While meeting these suspects is easy enough, he finds it more difficult to lure them into his vicinity, become a trustworthy companion, and bait the true terrorist into revealing herself.

When Tupra threatens to kill all three women to prevent a bigger catastrophe, Nevinson uses deduction to select a target, a conclusion with a large margin of error, an educated guess at best. The rising suspense culminates in his attempt to assassinate the supposed terrorist, though he worries that none of these women may be the criminal he is led to believe. Nevinson becomes equivocal: if he had been sure of the suspect’s culpability, would he have murdered her with no sense of guilt? Should he believe, as he did so during his active years, that by killing this woman, he is saving many lives? Nevinson comes to fear the consequences of his decision, quoting Macbeth, “‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy, than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.” The novel puts into question Kant’s idea of categorical imperative when the standard of ethics in our world cannot divorce itself from consequences.

Javier Marías passed away last year, and Tomás Nevinson—his last and longest novel at 650 pages—was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, who had worked with him for the last 30 years. Tomás Nevinson is a companion piece to Marías’s previous novel, Berta Isla, Nevinson’s wife and protagonist of that novel. Tomás Nevinson continues where Berta Isla leaves off, but from a different perspective. A prior reading of Berta Isla is not necessary, although the emotional impact may be heightened by knowing the couple’s past, which is briefly sketched in the new novel. If Berta Isla probed the limits of knowing in human relationships, Tomás Nevinson explores the limitations of moral certainty. If Berta Isla toyed with the idea of the espionage novel, Tomás Nevinson consummates the genre.

Indeed, it is an espionage novel, which employs Marías’s signature style: digressive reflections, allusion to diverse literary works, and philosophical musings. Once again, his sentences rove with a compass rather than with a map, exploring uncharted psychological and philosophical territories of human affairs. His narrative enters a maze in which every possible route is inspected. Elliptical turns and backtracking are frequent, yet rather than being exhausting, they offer nuances and emphases.

In one sentence, Nevinson contemplates his illogical decision to accept the mission: “[T]he only way not to question the usefulness of what you have done in the past is to keep doing the same thing; the only justification for a murky, muddy existence is to continue to muddy it; the only justification for a long-suffering life is to perpetuate that suffering, to tend it and nourish it and complain about it, just as a life of crime is only sustainable if you persevere as a criminal, if villains persist in their villainy and do harm right left and center, first to some and then to others until no one is left untouched.”

Such sentences progress like blood flowing into all the channels of a vein, supplying the narrative with life and zeal. Marías is one of those gifted writers whose style sets him apart from other writers, whose authorship is apparent on every page he writes.

The plot of Tomás Nevinson includes a few real-life events that transpired during the long political conflict between Spain and the Basque Country, including the kidnapping and the subsequent murder of the Spanish politician Miguel Ángel Blanco by the ETA. Nevinson joins his neighbors marching to the town square in demonstration, perhaps to earn their trust, taking advantage of solidarity forged by the maddening atrocities incurred by the Basque nationalists. To Marías’s credit, a sense of urgency pervades the novel despite his introspective prose.

Endearing scenes between Nevinson and his wife Berta Isla, who have two children together, provide comforting reprieve from Nevinson’s stumbling undercover work. They care for each other, but long years of absence from the household during his active service rendered their marriage void. They no longer live under the same roof; Tomás is more like an avuncular figure to his children. Although they sometimes share Berta’s bed, Tomás does not probe into Berta’s private life, believing that he has no right. But the novel ends with promising notes as he recites Yeats’s “When You Are Old” to Berta:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

With Marías’s untimely passing, we will never find out whether Berta and Tomás will rekindle their love, and yet as his final work, Tomás Nevinson, with his perennial theme of secrecy and betrayal, Marías has left us a towering works, a rightful culmination testifying to his genius.




Richard M. Cho is a research librarian for Humanities and Literature at University of California, Irvine. His writing has been published in Tint Journal, Asymptote, LA Review of Books, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @JJJ_Review More from this author →