One day he receives a short manuscript from a writer who lives in the small Brazilian town of Frondosa and calls herself ‘Ariadne’. The manuscript details how Ariadne is trapped in a loveless marriage of her own, by a man who killed her ‘Secret Lover’. Once Ariadne has told her tale, she will commit suicide.
Excited by the concept, the editor asks to see more, and also requests a photograph of the author. More of the manuscript duly arrives, along with a photograph of a beautiful young woman.
Determined to rescue Ariadne from her fate, the editor conspires with his friends. One by one his friends are dispatched to Frondosa as undercover agents to find out what they can discover about Ariadne …
THE SPIES is chock-a-block with references to crime and mystery authors. The most explicit is John Le Carré, as the editor – who announces in the opening line that he is a literary graduate – quotes Le Carré on a number of occasions as he puts into play his ‘Operation Theseus’.
Other crime fiction authors mentioned included Simenon and Chandler, while there are also more oblique references to Edgar Allan Poe.
One crime / mystery author not mentioned explicitly in THE SPIES, oddly enough, is Ian Fleming. This is odd because Fleming’s very first James Bond novel, DR NO, is a modern retelling of the ‘Theseus and the Minotaur’ story, relocated to the Caribbean and given a spy novel flavouring.
Having said all that, while Verissimo appears to be quite genuine in his appreciation of the crime and mystery authors mentioned, the book as a whole plays out as a farce. Which is to say, there is definitely homage being paid to individual writers, but THE SPIES reads like a loving spoof of the crime novel.
Overall, the tone of the novel is one of absurd comedy. It opens with the line, “I’m a literature graduate and I drink heavily,” as if one necessarily prompted the other; and that quality of dark humour continues throughout.
The high seriousness with which the editor treats his quest is also quite funny, not least because he refuses to be swayed by any facts. For example, he believes in the beginning that ‘Ariadne’ is a pseudonym taken from Greek mythology, and that the manuscript he has been sent is a piece of string designed to guide him to her through the labyrinth. When it becomes clear that Ariadne is in fact the woman’s real name, he is not at all deterred; he simply recalibrates his quest, decides that it must be fate that her real name is Ariadne, and presses on regardless.
Meanwhile, as the editor – ‘a literature graduate’, no less – is tying himself up in knots over imagined Greek mythology references, the more astute reader will be aware that Ariadne is in fact plagiarising one of the most famous pieces of literature of the 20th century.
It’s reasonable to ask why Verissimo is engaged in this kind of literary cross-pollination, and as far as I can make out, he’s making the double point that literary authors shouldn’t take themselves as seriously as they do, while non-literary authors – or genre authors – should be taken a bit more seriously than they are. Having said that, it’s notable that Verissimo tends to quote and / or reference crime and mystery authors who are regarded as among the finest of their kind – Chandler, Simenon, Le Carré. There are no references here to James Patterson, for example.
In terms of narrative playfulness, Verissimo is also engaged in folding the story back on itself. The editor consciously takes on the part of a fictional creation when he decides to become a spymaster investigating Ariadne; he looks to works of fiction for his inspiration when devising his plans. Here he appears to be asking the readers to decide for themselves as to what is real and what isn’t when it comes to reading fiction, a gambit he makes explicit on page 69:
“If anything should happen to you, who should I contact?”In a sense, Verissimo is here challenging the reader as to how much he or she cares about the characters. If it’s ‘all just a fiction’, why should we care about the characters we encounter in books?
“What could possibly happen to me?” And he added, when he was already halfway out the door, “Isn’t this all just a fiction?”
I hugely enjoyed THE SPIES. At 169 pages it lacks the full impact of a novel, and dedicated fans of the crime / mystery spy thriller may feel cheated by the fact that Verissimo is playing with the conventions of the spy novel rather than writing a straightforward novel. For readers who enjoy a wider range of reading, however, THE SPIES is a real joy. Blending conventions from genre fiction, literary fiction, meta-fiction and Greek mythology, it’s a wonderfully funny commentary on the novel itself, as well as an entertaining tale about the dysfunctional nature of the creative process. – Declan Burke
THE SPIES by Luis Fernando Verissimo is published by Picador.