Book review: The Spies, By Luis Fernando Verissimo

The Brazilian spymaster who came in from the cold

It must have been one hell of a job. Translating The Spies into English from its native Brazilian Portuguese will not have been easy.

At first glance, this slim volume might seem to be a mere jeu d'esprit – a lightweight, humorous novella with a touch of Borges which is also a kind of riff on the work of John le Carré, an author repeatedly name-checked in Verissimo's book.

Margaret Jull Costa has risen to the challenge. Every word has been weighed, sampled and slotted into a perfectly constructed whole, and Jull Costa's rendering does satisfying justice to the book. That said, for all its accomplishment, this is not a book for every taste.

The central character is a publisher whose attitude to his authors is distinctly cool. His real pleasure comes not from working on the books he publishes but from pointless discussions with a quirky group of friends who gather at the Bar do Espanhol near his office. Desultory arguments focus on the place of the comma and the worthlessness (or genius) of famous authors.

But Verissimo's protagonist is under no illusions about the usefulness of these debates. "It was," he says, "a way of dramatising our own inescapable mediocrity, a kind of mutual flagellation through banality." Of course, this group is ripe for something to shake them out of their dull existence. That happens when the publisher receives a puzzling letter with a sample chapter. Ariadne, who lives in the secluded town of Frondosa, is considering suicide. One thing is delaying the act: she wants to complete the memoir she's working on.

The narrator adopts the role of the spymaster in his beloved Le Carré novels, sending out various friends to find out what's happening to this self-destructive woman. Of course, none of these emissaries prove up to the task of helping the mysterious Ariadne. There are many eccentric and memorable characterisations here, and a clever parody of the spy-detective story. The wry, affectless prose will not be for every palate. But for those prepared to give themselves over to this unusual Brazilian writer, there is treasure hidden underneath the surface.