Tomás Nevinson by Javier Marías review – seductive and inescapably poignant

<span>Photograph: Quim Llenas/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Quim Llenas/Getty Images

An espionage thriller in sinuous slow motion, Tomás Nevinson is the final novel from Javier Marías, who died in his native Madrid last autumn at the age of 70. It centres on an eponymous ex-spy (featured in Marías’s previous novel, Berta Isla) coaxed out of retirement for one last job: to catch and potentially kill a terrorist gone to ground in northern Spain after bombings in Barcelona and Zaragoza. Trouble is, there are three suspects – all women – and it may not actually be any of them...

Tomás poses as a schoolteacher, Miguel Centuriòn, to watch their comings and goings as well as those of the men associated with them, from a petty drug dealer to a corrupt local politician. When someone tells Tomás that spies are “interpreters of people”, you sense Marías can think of another trade in that game, too; the core of the novel is essentially a series of interlinked short stories in which fictional narration itself seems a form of surveillance, as the protagonist’s mission offers a pretext for a small-scale panorama of village ways, anchored to a scrupulous weighing up of the moral and psychological implications of the hit he’s been hired to carry out.

It’s serious stuff – without warning, Marías drops in a photograph of real-life bomb victims early on – but there’s room for lightness as well, not least in his depiction of erudite spooks reaching for TS Eliot’s Four Quartets or an analogy with the reign of Henry VIII to figure out a relationship conundrum. When Tomás says he once met the Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante (“passing myself off as a Spanish novelist”), I swore I saw the jacket photo of Mariàs wink; Tomás even uses as a cover story the idea that he’s writing a novel of village life in northern Spain.

Tomás addresses us in the first and third person at once, a perfect expression of his divided self

Tomás addresses us in the first and third person at once, a perfect expression of his divided self that nonetheless jars: “Needless to say, I made my own inquiries, and needless to say, Centurión found out what he could.” Other narrative decisions are more in keeping with genre norms, whether to convey the story’s real-life background (“You know what happened at Hipercor, don’t you?” “You’ve just told me: 19 June 1987, a car bomb in a shopping mall. Twenty-one dead and forty-five injured”) or to advance the plot, particularly when it comes to the connoisseurial view of women at the heart of Tomas’s spycraft. He says of one target that “her extremely long legs were, after all, one of her few attractive features”; of another, we’re told that “her face was round... her bust was round... her hips were also round – perhaps having given birth to two children was to blame for that, rather than any kind of neglect on her part”.

Central to all Marías’s effects is his style. This is an interior novel, less about deeds than the guilty turmoil of thought, portrayed in long fluid sentences, which come courtesy once more of his longtime translator Margaret Jull Costa (who offers a generous afterword on their working relationship). When one of the book’s segments ends by saying that life in Ireland “consists solely of waiting and storing up resentments”, the next section begins: “What I’ve just said is inaccurate and unfair, because not all of Ireland is like that, and besides, I don’t know the country that well; no place is ever wholly like that. Every country has its share of ingenuous, well-intentioned individuals... But there are also places that abound in toxic hubs (whole villages and valleys, and even the occasional town dominated by malice) whose capacity for contamination is so strong that...”

Et cetera. Seductively conversational and glinting with slantwise humour (“even the occasional town”), as well as contradictory and grandiose, the torrent of reflection sweeps away the thought that even a closely printed novel of more than 600 pages might start taking care of itself when the writer gets into this kind of groove. And as the tale at last reaches its action-packed denouement, there’s something inescapably poignant about all these drawn-out deferrals, the never-ending clauses and caveats. Keep them coming, you think, knowing there’s no more left.

Tomás Nevinson by Javier Marías (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) is published by Hamish Hamilton (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply