Deadly Possibilities

“Why can’t one do that? Why can’t one, according to you, go around beating people up and killing them?” The question is put to the narrator, Jaime — or Jack or Jacopo — Deza, by his boss, Tupra, who also goes by other names — Reresby, Ure, Dundas — and who heads a department of the Security Services, operating from “a house with no name”. We might think the answer obvious. That indeed appears to be Deza’s position. He had been horrified by the episode that concluded the previous novel in Javier Marias’s trilogy which saw Tupra take a sword to an obnoxious diplomat from the Spanish Embassy in London, assaulting him in a night club’s toilet for the disabled, wounding him and frightening him close to death. Tupra’s argument is simple. Fear works — so why restrain oneself? Deza will come to see its cogency.

Poison, Shadow and Farewell concludes one of the most remarkable and in certain respects puzzling novels of our time: remarkable in its high intelligence, style and ambition; puzzling in the way it blurs fact and fiction. Deza’s mentor, Sir Peter Wheeler, retired Oxford don and spook, is a real-life character, Sir Peter Russell (born Wheeler), former Professor of Hispanic Studies and wartime intelligence officer, to whom the first volume was dedicated. Now at the end of the road, Marias again acknowledges his debt to Russell, and to his own father (veteran of the Spanish Civil War) “without whose borrowed lives this book would not have been written. May they both rest now” — for they have died in the last chapter of the trilogy — “in the fiction of these pages as well.”

In one sense at least, it doesn’t matter how much of their lives — and words — Marias has “borrowed”. Both Deza’s father and Wheeler exist as fully realised fictional characters. Had Marias chosen to call Wheeler anything else — Dundas, for instance — one would never have doubted his fictionality, or wondered whether his opinions belonged to a real-life original. But, throughout the trilogy, and especially in the first volume, I did indulge in this kind of speculation, which however did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel, may even have deepened it.

Reviewing that first volume, with naturally no idea of the direction the succeeding books would take, I wrote: 

Marias demands the reader’s close attention and patience, like Henry James or Proust. You find yourself faced with paragraphs that may be a couple of pages long, with dialogues that turn into monologues, with long passages of analysis and refinement of meaning. You are threatened with boredom. And then you are drawn in. You find there is so much to relish, that there are so many observations that require you to pause and ponder. You are dazzled by the author’s intelligence and understanding of human nature. You don’t even worry that the narrative doesn’t seem to be advancing, or that very often you are being offered an essay rather than a story.

Now, with the work concluded, I would add only that Marias is also a delightfully comic writer, employing exaggeration in the manner of Proust and Dickens, and a masterful irony that recalls Thomas Mann. As for the narrative, it pursues its course through the disquisitions just as, again, it does in Proust. Reflection may make it loop back on itself, at the same time altering one’s view of what has gone before. So, for instance, the long description in the second volume of the man Deza observes dancing, sometimes by himself, in the flat across the street from his London home, gains point when he is reminded of it by certain aspects in the behaviour of his estranged wife Luisa’s lover in this last book.

Deza is a man of great penetration. That is why he is recruited to the group of spies as an interpreter of people’s character and behaviour, able to predict how they are likely to behave in different circumstances. We don’t doubt his ability. Nevertheless, we may fairly judge now that the Deza of the first volume is an innocent, ignorant of his own nature and capabilities. The story of the trilogy therefore becomes the story of his own development, his self-education. It tells how this somewhat dilettante academic sheds illusions, learns the nature of the world and discovers what he can bring himself to be and do. Tupra’s question, which seemed so easy to answer, takes on a disturbing significance when, returning to Madrid, Deza finds that the lover Luisa has taken is himself almost certainly a violent man. 

The education, however unwilled, however slow, of a hero or heroine is the theme of many great novels; the track explored here by Marias follows in the wake of, among others, Austen and Stendhal, Flaubert and James, Proust and Mann. He does it in his own highly individual manner, but the questions are the same: what is this world I have been landed in? How do I make sense of it? What is permissible and what forbidden? And how do I live with myself when I understand my own nature and the world’s? 

Fear works, certainly, and there is much violence, horrible violence — if, at one remove or more than one — in this trilogy. But the terrible knowledge Deza acquires imposes a renewed sense of responsibility. We are what we do, and must take the consequences, which may be painful. So, for example, Deza makes a prediction about one character he has been asked to “interpret”, which, acted on by his boss, results in the commission of a crime and the self-destruction of its perpetrator. How far is Deza himself to blame? It’s a question that cannot be answered satisfactorily, for how can one fairly be held responsible for the actions of others, no matter what one has suggested? Again, in his last conversation with Deza, Wheeler recounts a wartime episode so appalling in its consequences as to be unbearable for the person who set it in motion, so appalling as to be regarded perhaps as a war crime. But, he asks, how can we sensibly speak of “war crimes” when war itself by its very nature is a crime? This proposition is abundantly justified by the evidence of the Spanish war, as well as Hitler’s war, which Deza acquires in the course of the novel.

One would like to quote from the book but, however desirable in a long critical essay, it is impossible in a review. The nature of Marias’s prose, now meandering, now torrential as thoughts and sentences lead into each other and tumble over each other, means that no brief extracts can do justice to either the manner or the quality of the novel, or indeed to the richness of the references to poetry, plays, novels, history, music, painting and sculpture. Suffice therefore to say that the reader is likely to be alerted time and again by sentences that delight or disturb, which make you pause to reflect.

Finally, there are writers who please by their fidelity to the world around us, so that we say, “Yes, this is true to my experience of life.” Then there are others who make you see things differently, so that, instead of pleasing by the close resemblance of their work to reality, they require you to regard life and experience in a previously unsuspected light. Javier Marias belongs to this second, and rarer, group. After reading him you are likely to find yourself saying of some experience or thought, “but that’s straight out of Marias and I never saw it or thought of it that way before.”

The trilogy has been brilliantly translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"