There is an irony in this novel’s title being the name of its protagonist/narrator. Tomás Nevinson has had many personae. He sometimes loses track of which character he is inhabiting. In the long middle section, when he is living undercover in a provincial Spanish city where his true identity (he hopes) is unknown to anyone, his narrative slips unpredictably from first person to third. He is “I”: Tomás, an Anglo-Spanish British secret agent with a complicated history containing lethal violence, enforced disappearances and betrayed love. But then in the very next sentence he is “he”: Miguel Centurión, an innocuous-seeming all-Spanish schoolteacher. Whoever he is, though, Tomás/Miguel has been sent to watch three women, one of whom he may be required to kill.
This is Javier Marías’s last book. Or, more accurately, it is the last part we will get of a composite work the late and much lamented author was writing for decades. It’s not a sequel or a prequel to its predecessors – those words imply a narrative progression quite alien to the way Marías operated. He preferred the phrase “companion piece”.
The first part of the novel takes the form of an extended verbal duel between Nevinson, who thinks he has retired from undercover work, and his handler, Bertie Tupra. Tupra is a tempter and manipulator, a modern Mephistopheles. Years ago, he entrapped Nevinson into the service. Now he wants to make use of him again, and Nevinson, against his own better judgment, is sucked back in.
Marías was interested in spying for the same reason he was interested in fiction. Secret agents, with their false identities and shifty evasions, were handy vehicles for his explorations of consciousness. He told interviewers that he respected Ian Fleming, but his fictional universe is not the Bond sphere. Instead of novel weaponry and shiny cars we have extended evocations of cities whose histories weigh on their present like incubi. Instead of quick-sharp prose and incessant action, we have intricately meandering sentences and long periods of waiting. The narrative moves backward or spirals on the spot in a sequence of repetitions with variation, each return bringing us back to a slightly different present. This is a spy thriller, but it reads like one transposed into music by Philip Glass.
There is a plot. Nevinson must decide which of the three women he is stalking is an IRA terrorist on loan to the Basque separatist group Eta. Having identified her he must “take her out of the picture” – in this novel of indirect statements and opaque motivation, euphemism fits right in. It’s a straightforward setup, with fairytale echoes (the princess who must choose between three suitors, and woe betide her if she makes the mistake of picking the obvious candidate). But Marías, having used it as a scaffolding to hang his thoughts on, jettisons it. The backstory is not revealed. The climactic moment is a non-event. In Marías-world, morality is ambiguous and conclusions elusive. At the novel’s end, Nevinson is maybe sealing his bond with his wife, Berta Isla (eponymous heroine of an earlier novel), from whom his secret missions have repeatedly taken him away. He recites a poem – Yeats’s When You Are Old – which is so far from being a declaration that we are left wondering what he means her to understand by it.
It is one of many quotations and allusions in this book. “Literary fiction” is generally an otiose phrase – tautological and imprecise – but it fits Marías’s work exactly. Nevinson was in a bookshop in Oxford reading Little Gidding when Tupra’s trap snapped shut on him. Decades later, TS Eliot is still one of his most constant references, along with Marlowe, Baudelaire, Di Lampedusa, Wilfred Owen and – most insistently – Shakespeare. Taunted by Tupra, Nevinson defends himself with a line from Macbeth. He is confident Tupra knows the play by heart, “like any truly cultivated murderer”. Tupra learned his craft from the Kray twins, who probably didn’t have much Shakespearean tragedy on the tips of their tongues, but Marías is not mirroring reality. He is weaving a many-layered meditation on mortality and memory and free will and its opposite.
His subsidiary characters are puppets. The three female suspects are as unreadable to us as they are to Nevinson. The men with whom they are linked are not so much people as props’n’costumes: the drug dealer in his cowboy boots and sideburns, the grandee with his collection of antique swords, the scheming businessman wearing chaps and sombrero for sex as Nevinson watches on a hidden camera, the journalist who favours suits in shades from dried blood to faded rose.
The city where they all live is divided by a river. From his apartment, Nevinson can watch its inhabitants cross the only bridge. On foggy days it is hard to make out whether the walkers are approaching or going away. Readers, primed to hear Eliot’s voice everywhere, think inevitably of commuters on London Bridge, and the line from Dante that Eliot borrowed: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” This novel leaves its plotlines dangling, not bothering to answer simple questions about who did what to whom, because its author is more concerned with larger, more suggestive mysteries. As Nevinson’s quest stalls, readers may sometimes feel as impatient as Tupra does, longing for forward movement. But then Marías mesmerises us again and we are swept on by the long, powerful swells of his prose, flawlessly translated by Margaret Jull Costa, and the circling currents of his thought.
• Tomás Nevinson by Javier Marías is published by Hamish Hamilton (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.