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.
Marías recounts her agitation in long, looping sentences that meander like passages of experimental jazz before circling back on the same motifs. As with experimental jazz the effect can be tedious. Berta faces a long, gruelling wait for her husband. Fans of pacier novels may share her feelings of desperation
“There is but one art, to omit!” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. “If I knew how to omit, I would ask no other knowledge. A man who knows how to omit would make an Iliad of a daily paper.” A man, or woman, who knew how to omit would release a much improved novella from this 544‑page tome. Interestingly, the slimmed-down book would be much closer to commercial than literary fiction, with its meet-cute scene between Berta and the young bullfighter, the menacing terrorists who obliquely threaten her baby, and the climactic reversal that resembles something by Roald Dahl. These, and the name of a young Oxford detective who investigates Tomás - “our diligent Inspector Morse” – suggest another possible twist: perhaps the real master of deception is Marías himself, and his book is simply a potboiler in heavy disguise.
References to fiction and poetry recur in this elegant, discursive, persuasively vivid novel. Marias knows that espionage depends on lies and weasely versions of the truth; that sometimes the false stories used to bait the enemy are as important as James Bond heroics. George Smiley is perhaps a better model for the twilight realm in which Marias’s characters live, and at one point, inevitably, John le Carre is name-checked... This is an enthralling work, but not everything is as seamless or satisfying as in some of his other novels. When the structure of the book becomes clear, the narrative duet undermines its tension. And there is a downbeat tone, a detached air, that overwhelms any sense of propulsion.
A novel by Javier Marías, as his millions of readers know, is never what it purports to be. Spain’s most eminent novelist, Nobel laureate in waiting, translated into more than 40 languages, Marías likes to play with existential ideas. The Infatuations was ostensibly a murder mystery; Thus Bad Begins chronicled a loss of innocence. But the stories are always interwoven with deliberations on truth, morality, deceit and the impossibility of knowing one another, with side trips through literature and history. Marías’s closeness to Cervantes, Proust and, above all, Sterne is no secret. Shandyesque digressions are among the incidental pleasures faithful readers have come to expect...Marías has said that he feels more at ease with his masculine characters; there is a hint of the male gaze in his work, possibly misogyny? Not this time: Berta, the desolate wife, is the heart of the story; her first-person narrative eloquently occupies the bulk of the 532 pages.
Having tinkered with the spook-yarn formula in his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Marías strips back the action to stage a dialled-up drama of early motherhood, pitting Berta’s experience against her husband’s in a late-night argument over the kitchen table. While she’s horrified that – with their shared memory of life under Franco – Tomás could be a tool of state violence, he accuses Berta of naivety over the skulduggery buttressing everyday life: “Why do you think people can live in peace, can get on with their lives, focus on their personal sufferings and hardships… without a thought for anything else?”
By the time the climax swings back to his perspective, with Tomás finally emerging from deep cover, it’s moot whether his high-minded defence has survived, as Marías’s trademark long sentences – stories in themselves, undoing facts even as they’re stated – unspool a twisty, thought-provoking tale that puts notions of truth and morality under pitiless scrutiny.
Like its characters, Berta Isla is a shape-shifter: part spy thriller, part murder mystery, part cerebral caper with echoes of Melville, T S Eliot and Henry V. It is also a trans-European historical novel, set between Oxford and Madrid in the 1970s and 1980s, with a hinterland that includes the campaigns of ETA and the IRA, the fall of Franco, the rise of Thatcher and the Falklands War.
But at its centre is an anxious, brooding domestic drama...Marías is an uncommonly powerful writer: wily, erudite and endlessly inventive. But, at times, the torrential eloquence of his prose is overpowering. Tomás’s fear of being exposed is ‘silent, constant, vigilant, ruthless, vengeful, the kind that’s always on guard’. He feels as unsubstantial as ‘a blade of grass, a speck of dust, a lifting mist, a snow that falls but doesn’t settle, a handful of ashes, an insect, a cloud of smoke that finally disperses’. Married life can be ‘monotonous and insipid, insipid and disappointing’. Indeed, no short quotation can adequately convey the landslide of sub-clauses, parentheses and run-on sentences that fills this book. It is as though the author shares his characters’ terror of silence, their fear that ‘one irresistible slide into sleep and you find yourself dead, asleep for ever’.