"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.