Marias is clearly following Proust in his method, taking pages and pages of rich, circumspect prose to track, for example, a single sentence that opens a conversation--or most of a book to detail the interactions at a cocktail party. His narrator, a middle-aged Spaniard, newly divorced and lonely, is forever examining his impressions, weighing his subjective perceptions, attempting to read, between lines of a conversation, the intentions of his interlocutors. After all, if, as he has learned, one's deep-rooted perceptions of one's own marriage are not to be trusted, then of what use are first impressions, passing thoughts, hasty judgments?
That question is both the central thematic concern of the novel and the driver of its plot--which Marias somehow gets rolling despite his oh-so-deliberate pace. The narrator is recruited by an Oxford professor to a shadowy secret service agency, whose mission and whose ties to the government are both unclear, and whose work--at least the narrator's portion of it--consists largely of meeting businessmen, diplomats, and the like and writing instant, candid assessments of their character, trustworthiness, and likely future actions. Though the narrator seems to have a knack for the job, he remains skeptical, for the reasons given above; that skepticism allows Marias to tie his story to the story of the Spanish Civil War. The narrator stays up all night at his friend the professor's house reading a history of the war and reflecting on its confusing welter of split loyalties, double agents, political violence--and its hidden, mostly unspoken presence in modern Spanish life.
After all, the narrator thinks, there are Francoists, people who carried out political assassinations, alive and living quietly in Spain today, growing old under a different face from the one they wore during the war. Who and what and how can you trust, especially when--as in the case of the narrator's secret occupation or the post-war refusal to discuss war crimes and culpability--there is no way to verify your impressions, no outside confirmation of what you think you know?
That's what happens sometimes with those things that we deny or keep silent about, that we hide away and bury, they inevitably start to fade and blur, and we come to believe that they never actually existed or happened, we tend to be incredibly distrustful of our own perceptions once they have passed and find no outside confirmation or ratification, we sometimes renounce our memory and end up telling ourselves inexact versions of what we witnessed, we do not trust ourselves as witnesses, indeed, we do not trust ourselves at all, we submit everything to a process of translation, we translate our own crystal-clear actions and those translations are not always faithful, thus our actions begin to grow unclear, and ultimately we surrender and give ourselves over to a process of perpetual interpretation, applied even to those things we know to be absolute fact, so that everything drifts, unstable, imprecise, and nothing is ever fixed or definite and everything oscillates before us until the end of time, perhaps it's because we cannot really stand certainty, not even certainties that suit us and comfort us, and certainly not those that displease or unsettle or hurt us, no one wants to be transformed into that, into their own fever and spear and pain.