‘Berta Isla’ by Javier Marías (Review)

After several years in the Russian wilderness, it’s time to head back to civilisation with the next of our potential Man Booker International Prize longlisters.  This one sees us alternating between Madrid and Oxford (with a few excursions to more dangerous regions) in a book that could be described as a spy thriller.  However, when it comes to today’s author, it would be a mistake to judge the book by its cover, or even the blurb.  This is one to savour, with a new twist on an old story – and old friends 🙂

*****
Berta Isla, the latest work from Javier Marías (translated by Margaret Jull Costa), has more than a passing connection to his most impressive novel(s), the spy trilogy Your Face Tomorrow.  Once again, we have a multilingual Spaniard, Tomás/Thomas Nevinson, spending time at Oxford University, only to be noticed by retired secret agent Peter Wheeler, who gently hints that his talents might be of great use to his English father’s country.  After initially rebuffing these advances, Tom is forced to change his mind when he becomes entangled in an unfortunate affair, with the enigmatic Bertram Tupra the only man able to save him – at a price, of course.

However, as the title suggests, the novel focuses less on Tom than on his partner, Berta, a beautiful young woman who got together with Tom at a young age.  Having grown accustomed to his absences over the course of his studies in Oxford, she grudgingly accepts the need to share her husband with his job, enjoying the time they spend together in Madrid and biting her tongue when curiosity gets the better of her.  Such a life is unlikely to run smoothly, though, and when Tom fails to return from one of his regular absences, Berta must face up to an uncomfortable truth: he may never come home at all…

I suspect that the many Marías fans out there will be torn on hearing of the Your Face Tomorrow links in Berta Isla.  While some will be hoping for more of the magic of the trilogy, others may fear a tarnishing of the writer’s reputation, especially given the relative disappointments (with a strong emphasis on the word ‘relative’) of his last couple of books, The Infatuations and Thus Bad Begins.  Luckily, that’s not the case, and just as the trilogy can be read without needing to refer to the earlier All Souls, the world of Your Face Tomorrow is merely a familiar frame within which Marías is able to tell a whole new story, involving two fresh characters.

It’s interesting to compare the main man of this book, Tom Nevinson, with Jacques Deza of the earlier novels.  The casual volunteer of Your Face Tomorrow is replaced here by a conscripted full-time agent, and even if what Tom actually does is veiled behind a wall of official secrets (whereas the reader was able to follow Deza as he went along his business), Berta Isla offers some fascinating insights into the life of a long-term spy.  Certainly, you’re left feeling that Deza made the right call to bow out when he had the chance.

In truth, though, Marías’ focus here is less on the spy than on the woman he keeps leaving behind, and large sections of the book are told through Berta’s eyes.  Despite her husband’s determination to keep her in the dark, she’s not entirely unaffected by his work.  Quite apart from the uncertainty, and the constant covering up to children and relatives, a rather unsavoury experience with an ‘Irish’ couple, the Kindeláns, who have a few words to say about Tomás, brings home just what kind of work her husband really does.  Of course, he’s not there to deny the claims the unwelcome visitors make:

The telephonist had said Tomás was away, which suggested that he wasn’t in London.  And if he wasn’t in London, then I had no means of locating him, and I really needed to speak to him, to tell him what had happened, and ask him what the hell he was up to and what kind of mess he’d got us into, as well as what his work actually involved, if, that is, they were right, the Kindeláns, whom I did indeed hope never to see again, either in the Jardines de Sabatini or anywhere else.  I needed to ask him to arrange matters so that it couldn’t happen again.
p.191 (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)

This isn’t the first time he’s been incommunicado, but at a time when she truly needs his help, she finally realises that he’s not to be relied on.

Initially, her dilemma is whether to stick with him or give him up.  Even when Tom is around, she’s frustrated by the empty discussions, with her husband unwilling, and unable, to shed any light on what he gets up to during his absences.  This lack of information inevitably leads her to imagine the worst, suspecting him of being a murderer, a traitor, a bedder of other wives, and she’s disgusted by the thought of what his skills and talents are now used for:

Once, those verbal incarnations had been intended to divert or amuse, but now they were deadly serious, and their very seriousness made them horribly sinister; they were a brilliant forgery, like a fake painting that is presented and sold as authentic, or like a seducer in one of those classical comedies, who slips into the bed of a woman under cover of a moonless night, pretending to be her beloved, and has his way with her: that was the stuff of deceit. (p.276)

As much as Tom might bluster in defence of his work, Berta has many years to consider his arguments, and she’s far from convinced.  Is Tom really any better than Franco’s brutal underlings?  Do the ends (‘protecting the realm‘) justify the means?  More importantly, if any of this is true, is she really content to only ever have a part of him (and perhaps not even the best part)?

However, with Tom out of the way for the most part, Berta Isla is more concerned with how its heroine copes with his absence when it stretches beyond the typical span.  She’s in the prime of her life, capable of attracting men with little effort, so believing that Tom is gone may be the best option, allowing her to move on.  Yet is it possible to write someone off when no trace of them has been found?  For many readers, this will be the most interesting part of the novel, seeing how Berta tackles life in the dark, not knowing whether her husband is dead or alive.

While perhaps not quite as mesmerising and complex as Your Face Tomorrow, Marías’ latest slice of literary spy antics still makes for an impressive work.  The reader is treated to the usual enigmatic sentences, often stopped in their tracks by certain ideas that might, just might, be clues as to what lies ahead:

although we never really know if someone has been harmed until their story is complete, and that takes time. (p.50)

We know Marías will be dropping hints all over the place, each sentence holding the potential of a future echo, with talk of changing appearances and the usual literary allusions (Le Colonel Chabert, Henry V, T.S. Eliot) teasing us every time they appear.  It’s all very well knowing that an idea might be important, though; separating the real ones from the many red herrings is another matter entirely…

Berta Isla is an excellent work, a chance to catch up with old friends (including the always-wonderful Bertram Tupra), with clever hints as to the truth of the story scattered throughout the novel – and even a cameo appearance from another fictional figure.  Marías adds another couple of intriguing characters to his spy world and shows us that, as much as we might deny it, very few of us actually have any influence over the lives we lead.  I’d certainly be putting this on the MBIP longlist, and I do hope the official judges feel the same.  Yes, a complex 532-page novel is probably the last thing many of our shadow judges need given the tight timeframe, but they’ll definitely be rewarded for their efforts. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “‘Berta Isla’ by Javier Marías (Review)

  1. This was my first book by Marias. Your review read like visiting an old friend, but I thought the first 120 or so pages was like meeting a smart but tedious acquaintance; someone whose life is more interesting than his digressions. Thankfully, Berta took over the narrative shortly thereafter and the novel became much more compelling. She is a memorable character – passionate but troubled, challenged yet resilient – whose life becomes a series of painstaking questions. In the end, they are answered but not without the shocks and surprises that bring this novel to its beguiling conclusion. Despite a frustrating start, it was worthwhile if only in showing the humanity of secret lives.

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    1. Scott – Ah, for me the Oxford parts were compelling, with cameos from old friends. Berta’s part was the core of the novel, but without the periodic intrusions from Tom’s story, it would have become fairly repetitive. I still have my fingers crossed for this one for the MBIP longlist…

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