An un­con­ven­tional spy thriller that delves deep

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - DAVID HAY­DEN

BERTA ISLA JAVIER MARÍAS Hamish Hamil­ton, £18.99

Berta Isla and Tomás Nevin­son meet as teenagers at school in Madrid in the late 1960s. Berta goes to univer­sity at home while Tom, whose fa­ther is English, goes to Ox­ford where, be­cause of his gift for lan­guages and mimicry, he is re­cruited, through foul means, into Bri­tish mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence. Berta and Tom have chil­dren to­gether but mostly live their lives not just sep­a­rate from one other but par­en­thet­i­cally, as Tom goes on un­known mis­sions in uniden­ti­fied places. One day Tom leaves for Lon­don and does not re­turn.

Javier Marías’s lat­est book, Berta Isla ,isa shadow ver­sion of the es­pi­onage novel. Most of the ac­tion that would typ­i­cally pro­vide the sub­stance and mo­tor of a thriller are undis­closed, talk­ing place in the novel’s se­cret life, par­al­lel to the nar­ra­tive we are read­ing. The at­mos­phere of that life leaks into the novel but the sup­posed in­trigues, killings and pur­suits of a spy story re­main, for the most part, hid­den.

What the reader has ac­cess to is a sin­gu­lar, en­gag­ing and pro­foundly un­set­tling novel about mar­riage, about what we can know, and not know, of love and each other. All this is in­ter­wo­ven with a melan­cholic ex­po­sure of the im­moral bases of power and the state.

The piv­otal mo­ment in the novel is when Berta is left wait­ing, a Pene­lope to Tom’s Odysseus, not know­ing if, and in what form, he will re­turn. Berta strug­gles with rea­son and emo­tion to en­com­pass the loss and, con­ve­niently for the reader, re­searches the his­tory of Bri­tish covert op­er­a­tions, see­ing how very com­fort­ably moral­ity and im­moral­ity co­ex­ist. The re­sult is a deep­en­ing pathos about our mor­tal nar­row­ing, and the con­tin­gency and il­lu­sori­ness of our choices.

Berta states that “only what we’re told, what suc­ceeds in be­ing told, ex­ists”. One of the re­mark­able achieve­ments of Marías’s novel is how it shows that not only does the un­told ex­ist, but that it can, and does, in­vis­i­bly, sub­stan­tially, shape much of our life.


Ini­tially Berta Isla reads not only as a fas­ci­nated por­trait of the world of es­pi­onage, but as an un­crit­i­cal, al­most sen­ti­men­tal one, in which the Bri­tish are nobly be­set by a sea of trou­bles and valiantly, in­ge­niously, ma­noeu­vre their way to vic­tory. Ox­ford takes a star­ring role, in­clud­ing dons with a hid­den war record and a walk-on part by a po­lice of­fi­cer named Morse (who turns out to be not quite a vis­i­ta­tion from the imag­i­na­tion of Colin Dex­ter).

Ire­land plays a cen­tral, though off­stage, part, as a uniquely sav­age is­land, a kind of dark in­ver­sion of the scep­tred isle. In the back­ground are a num­ber of the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal and so­cial up­heavals of the late 1960s to the near present – the Trou­bles, the de­cline and end of Fran­co­ism, the Falk­lands con­flict and the col­lapse of com­mu­nism.

The pres­ence of a copy of Joseph Con­rad’s The Se­cret Agent at an early scene of cri­sis for Tomás Nevin­son, how­ever, in­di­cates that within this seem­ingly An­glophilic por­trait there are un­der­tows of dan­ger, ma­nip­u­la­tion and im­pos­ture not far from the sur­face.

Other lit­er­ary ref­er­ences are in­te­grated into the novel and, es­pe­cially in the case of TS Eliot’s Lit­tle Gid­ding, set up the­matic echoes that re­peat en­rich­ingly through­out the book. Quoted, but not men­tioned by name, is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stag­ger­ingly odd and bril­liant short story Wake­field, which pro­vides Marías with one of Berta Isla’s plots. This story is set off against Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, and the Daniel Vigne film, and the Janet Lewis book, of Martin Guerre – all tales of dis­ap­pear­ance, un­cer­tainty and im­pos­ture. Shake­speare’s spy king, Henry V, also makes an ap­pear­ance, but it is Berta’s quo­ta­tion from Charles Dick­ens’s A Tale of Two Cities that gets to the heart of her sit­u­a­tion: “…ev­ery hu­man crea­ture is des­tined to be a pro­found se­cret and mys­tery to ev­ery other crea­ture”.

There is the oc­ca­sional ir­rup­tion of what seems to be Marías’s voice when one of his char­ac­ters, usu­ally Berta, is nar­rat­ing. The ro­bust and sub­tle flow of Mar­garet Jull Costa’s el­e­gant trans­la­tion, though, quickly moves the reader on from these lapses.

Berta Isla leaves be­hind the worn-out tropes of the spy thriller, while re­tain­ing the qual­ity of sus­pense found in the very best books of the genre: John Le Carré, Eric Am­bler and Ge­of­frey House­hold.

Marías opens the story into a space where we can med­i­tate on some of the largest, and most ir­re­solv­able themes in lit­er­a­ture: know­ing and loving, agency and con­se­quence, loss and death.

Javier Marías: leaves be­hind the worn-out tropes of the spy thriller

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