Like Luís Fernando Veríssimo’s 2000 novel Borges and the Eternal Orangutans, The Spies is a literary mystery. The narrators of both novels are men who have passed uneventful lives amid books; both narrators become involved in crimes comprehensible only to the literary-minded. For the narrator of The Spies, a publisher, the mystery he is called on to solve becomes an obsession, an opportunity to star in a real-life spy thriller.
The mystery begins when the narrator receives the first chapter of a manuscript by a woman calling herself Ariadne. She writes about the moon and the eastern star and a catalpa tree, but beyond this her message is clear: she is preparing to kill herself to avenge the deaths of her father and a man she calls the Secret Lover. She is both victim and creator, both looking to kill herself and looking for a publisher. The narrator feels he has no choice but to go incognito to Ariadne’s town and investigate, in best spy-thriller tradition. But does he go as Ariadne’s editor or her saviour? Is he helping to write a story, solve a crime or prevent a suicide?
There are no hierarchies of true and false in The Spies. The whole is a frolic in absurdity, yet has a coherence reminiscent of a cryptic crossword clue: mystifying from the outside, but with unarguable internal logic. At barely 200 pages, and with a note-perfect translation from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, The Spies shares with a cryptic crossword the virtue of succinctness, not a word or scene wasted. But, if the unreal seems real, the flipside is that the real seems unreal, and it’s hard to take any of it seriously. We know that the story will end in tragedy because the narrator tells us so, but when it happens we scarcely feel it, however much he stresses that it is written in the stars.
Source: The Guardian