Spanish literature Javier Marias it has always been pulled between the spell of genres and the ambitions of “high literature” (or mainstream, or whatever you want to call it, because it is always difficult to find words for things made of words). In his case, this two-sided aesthetic can be represented by a double affiliation.
Representing the reflection that characterizes his prose we have his father, Julián Marías, a disciple of Ortega y Gasset, translator of Wilhelm Dilthey and Aristotle, a regular visitor to Argentina.
In the name of the pleasure for the genres, which always appears in his novels, there is his uncle, the film director Jess Franco, who was the brother of his mother, Dolores. Jess Franco (or Jesús Franco Manera) directed an infinity of films whose main ingredients were sex and terror. Very often there was more than one version of his films: severely cut in Franco’s Spain, they added footage and nudes in their German or French copies. He managed to shoot about 200 low-budget movies, including The vampires, screams in the night Y The castle of Fu-manchu. In 1964, for example, while Julián Marías was attending the exhibitions (in Latin) of the Second Vatican Council, Jess Franco directed Doctor Orloff’s Secret, a movie about crazy scientists and the living dead.
These tutelary figures also had a double face. Julián Marías was a philosopher capable of filling theaters. And Jess Franco, as bizarre as his films were, was later rescued by the intellectual world. Neither philosophy is a sure guarantee of loneliness, nor are vampires, zombies and naked women an effective antidote to late prestige.
These crosses are seen once more in Thomas Nevinson, the novel that Marías finished writing in October of last year. Half Spanish, half English, Nevinson, narrator and protagonist, is a “sleeping” agent of the British secret service. His boss, Bertram Tupra, wakes him up to give him a mission. He must travel to the imaginary Spanish city of Rouen to arrest or kill an ETA terrorist who collaborated in a bloody attack several years earlier. It is known that she is in the city, but has not been clearly identified.
There are three suspects: Nevinson must approach them and decide who the murderer is. To fulfill his mission, he leaves the company of his wife, Berta Isla, and his children, and settles in Rouen with a job as an English teacher. The British secret service is very interested in helping Spanish intelligence in this matter: the woman wanted is also a link between two terrorist groups, the Basque ETA and the IRA of Northern Ireland.
The spy novel was born as a defect or deviation from the detective novel: to the sobriety of the single and lonely murderer he added the populous fog of conspiracy. Chesterton said that there were two kinds of detective novels: those of the yellow room and those of the yellow peril. Very often it was the Chinese who pulled the strings, behind the screen. Exotic aliens, by contrast, were practically banned from the cast of suspects in the classic crime novel.
Chesterton, of course, preferred the yellow room: that is, the clean riddle, with no external forces lurking in the shadows. But then came William Somerset Maugham, and later Graham Greene, and finally John Le Carré, and they turned spy literature into an art made of tedious waiting, third-rate hotel rooms, and memorable dialogue.
They erased all exotic elements and brought to the scene the routine of the spies, their hesitations, their helplessness. It is not by chance that all three have been, at different times in their lives, spies: Maugham was already shining as a writer when he was tempted to travel to Russia, so that the revolutionary government could continue the war; John Le Carré was a teenager when he was enlisted in the English consulate in Bern; As for Graham Greene, he was probably a spy to the end of his days.
Thomas Nevinson He has contacts with other Marías novels. The character that gives the book its title had already appeared in Berta Isla. And Tupra, his sinuous boss, we knew from the trilogy Your face tomorrow. Tupra is a talent recruiter, a Professor Xavier who knows the powers of others.
If the protagonist of Your face tomorrow Tupra was interested in his ability to “read” faces, what matters to him about Nevinson is his extraordinary command of languages. The two forces – pure writing, which is the renunciation of expectation, and gender, which is the exaltation of expectation – coexist in harmony. Tupra is the representative of the spy genre; Nevinson, the neurotic hero who wants to fulfill both genre and literature at the same time.
Marías, you know, write long. It takes Nevinson a hundred pages to have a drink with Tupra, even though they are in a square in Madrid and it is cold (it is Kings Day 1997). Had it been arranged in a milder climate, the conversation could have lasted a whole novel.
Marías’s prose, however, is not boring: he uses the plot as an observatory to think about the world and consult his personal encyclopedia of cultural references (in which Shakespeare and film noir always appear). At the center of his reflections is what human nature has as a secret, especially when that secret is inclined to evil.
On the pages of Thomas Nevinson, Marías imposes a difficult mission: to bring together the mythology of the spy novel with the harsh reality in the same narrative space. The character of Tupra comes from the literary tradition, but the crimes of ETA appear in detail.
Marías is concerned with remembering the names of the murderers and also those of their victims. So that the reader does not forget that when they talk about murderers, they are talking about real murderers, Marías includes a photo of one of the bloodiest ETA attacks. This symbiosis between imaginary and reality is masterfully executed, in such a way that at no time is a crackling heard.
The novel is a long question: what to do in the face of an abominable crime. The author builds his character from his doubts: can he kill himself because of a suspicion, without absolute certainty, and even more so if he is a woman, no matter how enormous her crime is?
It does not stop drawing attention that in Spanish fiction (novels and films) the murderers of ETA appear with all their cruelty. In our discussions and narratives, on the other hand, the ERP and Montoneros appear shrouded in a desire for justice and perpetual innocence, which extends without difficulty to the criminals who attacked the La Tablada barracks and killed soldiers who were under twenty years of age. .
There is a moment when an inevitable collision occurs between “high literature” and the genre: it is the end. I have read some clever and inspired novels (for example The investigation, by Juan José Saer, or Night white, by Ricardo Piglia) who started out as police officers but then chose the ambiguity or the fugue of the round ending, and thus caused a certain disappointment in the closing.
“Gender exists when the only thing that matters to the reader is how the story goes,” Ricardo Mariño once said, recalling his childhood readings. As readers, we are a kind of Dr. Jekyll. We have a diurnal, adult and severe side, we accept things as they are. But from early on we have tasted the cursed potion, and inevitably we become the genre reader, the nocturnal and irresponsible Hyde.
The real Hyde, Stevenson’s, suffered a return to the animality of the species. We experience another return: we go back to childhood. Under our Jekyll identity, we accept throughout the novel the clauses of high literature, and we like that the book deals with the world, with the literary tradition, with moral questions. But in the final pages we need our Hyde to be satiated.
Javier Marías snatches the end of the genre, and delivers it to high literature. Reasonable, cultured, and well-mannered Jekyll reader approves. The Hyde reader, on the other hand, is not entirely happy.
Thomas Nevinson, Javier Marías. Alfaguara, 680 pp.
Pablo de Santis. Novelist, recently reissued The enigma of Paris.