Berta Isla by Javier Marías

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Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

Berta Isla by Javier Marias

I’m not one for classic spy stories: I don’t care if the martinis come shaken or stirred, and as much as I love anything set in the 70s, I gave the much-praised TV adaptation of le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl a miss. But Javier Marías’s Berta Isla is a brilliantly glorious exception to my no-spying rule. Perhaps this is because, remarkably for a novel about spying, it involves barely any spying at all.

Berta Isla and Tomás Nevinson are childhood sweethearts in Madrid, whose destiny, they soon establish, is to spend their lives together. They lead their independent sexual experimentations and adventures during their university years – Berta in Spain, Tomás in the UK, his father’s homeland – but it all comes under an unspoken agreement of sorts, and is nothing that could hamper the bigger plan. What can pose a threat to their intertwined futures, however, is one unfortunate night for Tomás in Oxford. After another casual visit to his lover’s adobe, he finds himself the prime suspect in a murder inquiry and realizes that it’s not just his dons but also the secret service that show an interest in his extaordinary language abilities. The Tomás that Berta eventually marries is a changed man – more solemn and secretive –, and she learns not to ask too many questions about the clandestine aspects of his job – supposedly – at the British embassy, and his stays in – supposedly – London, until the day it becomes clear that Tomás may not be returning from a longer-than-usual business trip.

Berta Isla is a darkly gripping psychological exploration of living with secrets and in secrecy and leading a life with more uncertainties and absences than certainties and presences. For Berta, the leading question becomes whether to hold onto hope of long-lost Tomás’s return, or whether to move on for good. After a sufficient number of years in absentia, Tomás is declared dead – should she accept being a widow as her identity, or just as an official status to make life easier in legal terms? For Tomás, his disguises from a new pair of glasses to beards, haircuts and accents are all external and shed as soon as a mission is over, but can his actual identity escape unscathed? Into him is instilled a secret service mantra that says that people in his line of work do things that do not happen, and therefore don’t do them – but can a person really live according to mantra and believe that what happened did not happen? Berta Isla brims with action of a psychological kind, delving into the deeper issues that run-of-the-mill spy stories don’t stop to think about.

Marías features regularly as a favourite to win the Nobel Prize in literature, so he is no stranger to his trade, nor is the wider audience a stranger to his style: known for his long-windedness, Marías has made prolixity his badge of honour. But in Berta Isla Marías’s trademark volume of words packed between a capital letter and a full stop can veer onto the wrong side of the fine line between actual mastery and trying-too-hard, becoming blatantly too prolix. Nor is it just the narrator, but also the characters who wander into the domain where less would have been more and omission gold. After Berta finds out about the nature of Tomás’s work, the couple launches on an epic discussion Shakespeare’s Henry V. In a famous scene, the king joins his soldiers disguised as one of them, and through a comparative analysis of the play and her husband’s life, Berta makes, in an amazingly elaborate way, the point that “[i]t’s absurd, everyone thinks they know who or what they’re serving when really they’re just groping in the dark, flying blind.” Berta and Tomás are obviously – perhaps a bit too much so – a learned and cultured couple, with a flair for literary analysis, but whether combing through Shakespeare for a decent chunk of pages is realistic pillow talk, I doubt very much; some things are just best left out of the dialogue. Long-windedness is an unfortunate sin that will put some readers off before they get into the gentle swing of Marías’s expression. But once the reader gets there, Berta Isla reads, for the most part, as a treat of verbal acrobatics, not unlike Tomás’s gift for languages. There are slips and misses for the author and characters alike, but under the imperfections sits a brilliant exploration of the psychology of espionage.

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Anna is a bookworm, student linguist and journalist.

Javier Marías, Berta Isla (Hamish Hamilton, 2018) 9780241343715, hardback, 531 pages.

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