Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Philosopher Spy

Fiction still isn’t free from the postwar suspicion of deep loves and loyalties.

Javier Marias Portrait Session
Javier Marias (Photo by Quim Llenas/Getty Images)

Tomás Nevinson, by Javier Marías, trans. Margaret Jull Casta, Knopf, 656 pages.

The novels of Javier Marías, who died last year at the age of 70, are famous for their philosophical themes. His genre-bending Tomás Nevinson, like its prequel of sorts Berta Isla (2017), blends the plot of a spy-thriller with the interiority and psychologizing of a latter-day Proust.


The book’s plot is substantively simple. A dual Spanish and British national with an uncanny gift for languages and accents, Tomás Nevinson is called out of his early retirement for one last assignment. Readers of Berta Isla—to appreciate Tomás Nevinson fully I recommend reading that first—know the background only obliquely referred to in the present book: Tomás was unwittingly entrapped by his future handlers while at college in Oxford and coerced into become a spy; his marriage to his youthful sweetheart in Madrid, Berta, was wrecked; he performed missions and acts of violence mostly left to the reader’s imagination; he has spent the better part of a decade living in hiding and presumed dead by his wife and the two children, whose infancies and youth he has mostly missed.

His handler-boss, the mysterious “Tupra,” who is of non-English parentage but loves his adoptive land with the zeal of a first-generation immigrant, unexpectedly shows up in Madrid with a proposition. Tomás is asked to move to a small city in Spain’s restive Basque country and discern which of a list of three possible suspects is actually a terrorist. One of the three is the half-Irish, half-Basque María Magdalena Orúe O’Dea. If Tomás can’t extract enough evidence for a courtroom conviction of the terrorist, he will be expected to kill her himself. The whole operation, according to Tupra, is “off the books,” orchestrated without the explicit approval of the Spanish government. 

Within this straightforward spy novel frame, Marías offers characteristically paradoxical and haunting reflections on the nature of espionage. Nevinson explains that his work has averted many terrorist attacks, but “they never happened, and what never happens is lost like a ship in a fog from which it never emerges. On the other hand, I did know what I’d done to avert those misfortunes, so that they would not be inflicted on the very citizens who want nothing to do with us and who disapprove of us without even knowing who we are…. People demand security but are unwilling to sully themselves, not even with the knowledge of what we do.” 

As a college student at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in the mid-2000s, I often took cheap flights to Europe on a budget carrier called Ryanair, which often uses second-tier airports to bring down costs. One such airport, called Glasgow Prestwick, I later discovered was an important waystation for the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program, taking suspected terrorists to so-called black sites for “enhanced interrogation.” At the same time that I was enjoying the fruits of affluence and globalization to hopscotch the European continent, sowing wild oats, a sophisticated, state-sponsored anti-terrorism apparatus was using the same infrastructure to disappear, albeit temporarily, possible Islamic extremists without my realizing it. Like Nevinson’s imagined interlocutor, I did not want to know what was being done in my name.

To bring up the acts of violence committed surreptitiously by state actors and terrorist groups inevitably elicits questions that are fundamental to the Western tradition: When, if ever, is state-sponsored extrajudicial killing justified? How far should a government, or the people who act under its orders, be willing to go to protect its citizenry? And is nationalism—love of country and of fellow citizens—an ennobling love or a degrading one? These questions are underexplored by the philosopher-novelist, whose imagination in other areas is so rich, lucid, and perspicacious.


“I’ve never been very interested in knowing myself,” Nevinson confides in the reader when wondering about whether terrorists (and by implication himself) are capable of feeling genuine remorse for their acts “without demolishing and destroying the whole of their previous existence.” Is this comment an exercise of the unreliable first-person narrator, or is Marias confiding a blind spot in his own literary thought? 

Equally disappointing is the author’s treatment of religious and nationalist sentiment. On more than one occasion, he equates the extremism and irrationality of terrorist groups with religious beliefs: “They all have something religious about them, they inherit enemies and objects of veneration that no one ever questions, because reason has no effect on them.” And again: “It’s rare to find a terrorist group that does not give off a stench of religion.”

A similar condescension bordering on disdain emanates from the narrator’s lips regarding nation-wide protests denouncing recent acts of terrorism committed by the Basque separatist group ETA:

I thought: “You should never join in such mass gatherings, such secular communion services, even if you’re tempted to do so by a sense of civic responsibility that gets you all excited and fired up. That’s why people keep organizing them. It doesn’t matter how just the cause, how justified the protest, there’s always the danger of throwing reason to the wind and becoming caught up in pure sentiment, which what all manipulators, religious or otherwise, patriotic or otherwise, from the left or right, try to do in order to gain power over people’s minds.”

On the one hand, then, religious and terrorists groups are conflated as equally irrational; on the other, protesting terrorist attacks under the auspices of patriotic love of country—even if it that love transcends political party lines in defense of the very national identity and territorial integrity that ETA threatens to destroy—also runs the risk of divergence from the narrator’s exacting definition of “reason.” 

Marías has more to offer on the fear of death—his, Nevinson’s, all of ours. Nevinson’s imaginings of his enemy’s last thoughts before he kills him are an analog for our own last thoughts as we stare down death and it stares back: “You see his panic and his ultimate powerlessness, or is it, rather, his collapse or surrender or his will grown weary; or the victim’s initial surprise when he realizes that he’s mortally wounded…. ‘No, this can’t be happening, this is pure imagination, it’s simply not possible that I will never again see or hear anything or utter another word, that this still-functioning mind will stop or fuse like a lightbulb.’”

Ultimately, Tomás Nevinson is the work of a masterful artist with a love for the particular and the subjective, of the half-truths by which our globalist elites live. To wager anything more on behalf of Christ or country would run the risk of fanning fanaticism. The novel ends with reunification of the childhood sweethearts Berta and Nevinson—the one loyalty, the one deep love, that the author allows. 

Some of us await the coming of the end of the postwar consensus as much in fiction as we do in politics. While we impatiently await the literary equivalent of R.R. Reno’s “return of the strong gods,” Marías’s posthumous novel will suffice as a satisfying diversion.