Monday 10 January 2011


This was the first Javier Marias novel where I actively skimmed through sections; it's also the middle part of what I suspect will be his greatest achievement yet. Does that seem contradictory? Let me explain.

Marias' prose tends towards long elaborations and digressions, with sentences spanning paragraphs, paragraphs spanning pages and parenthetical statements that take on a voluminous life of their own. In previous novels that I've read (The Man Of Feeling, All Souls, Tomorrow In The Battle Think On Me) by Marias, the emphasis is more on character and reverie, making each clause, qualification and detour a natural part of the reading experience.

This sequence of novels carries on with the same emphasis on characterisation, dialogue and interior narrative, but it has an added element of plot interest - Jaime Deza, the displaced Spanish academic of All Souls has now been recruited by some quasi-official covert intelligence operation. But it isn't just the elements of a spy thriller that make it harder to wait out the many ruminative passages here; with this set of novels it would seem that Marias, for all that his previous novels were literary masterpieces of the highest calibre, has finally decided to play for higher stakes and move beyond the more personal scale of his previous novels to confront a larger theme - violence itself, what motivates it, and whether it can ever be justified. All this gives the narrative a forward momentum that his previous novels didn't quite have; even here, he's taken his time to build the pace and pitch from the relatively more leisured first volume to the second, which has left me impatient to get on with the last volume.

The stakes feel higher than ever before, the story cuts closer to the bone and the plot itself has enough suspense that for once, I feel I must eschew absorbing every detail so that I can absorb the whole faster; I hope, once I finish the third book, that I find the time some day to go back and properly study the passages I've sped through this time. I'm also eager to see if the the third volume fulfills the promise of this being the most significant literary achievement and statement yet by one of today's very finest novelists.

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