Berta Isla by Javier Marías
A shadowy novel about espionage and emotional fidelity, Berta Isla follows a woman’s unrelenting commitment to her husband and his secrets. Tomás Nevinson and Berta Isla were teenage sweethearts and set on maintaining their relationship despite Tomás’s long-distance schooling at Oxford. But while at Oxford, Tom begins to slip away. He sleeps around, using the free love of the late 1960s as an excuse for doing what he wants whenever he wants, and at the conclusion of his schooling is recruited by a secret agency thanks to his “brilliant gift for mimicry and accents.” Amidst tragedies and political intrigue, he sinks further into a double life, returning to Madrid and his “beloved” Berta only when he’s given clearance to do so. Berta, meanwhile, stands by, inexplicably buoyed by a decision she made as a child to love this man. Despite issues of distance and their inability to steadily share a life together, they marry and begin a family. Still, Tom’s “embassy work” pulls him repeatedly from their home, leaving Berta to wallow in anxiety and insecurity.
There is nothing wrong with stories about spies, illicit affairs, secret families and double lives, but to some literary snobs these kinds of novels rank on a lower tier. In Berta Isla, one gets the impression that Javier Marías is trying to “fix” the thriller genre, and elevate its stature to something more refined. This is a deeply problematic sentiment which ripples throughout the author’s long and often tiresome novel. He trades action for prolix, meandering monologues, invoking Shakespeare and Beckett as his stock characters process the novel’s myriad cliches and double-crosses. It’s peculiar to read lines as trite as “we are simultaneously somebody and nobody…we both exist and don’t exist” alongside a character’s powerful reading of T.S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding,” but this kind of incongruence is the essence of Berta Isla. It is a book at odds with itself, unwilling to accept its nature as a spy novel, a love story, a character study, or an existential chronicle of the second half of the 20th century.
What little character development Berta experiences is almost entirely shaped by her absent husband’s actions. Her lack of independence is effectively frustrating, and Marías manages to build her with a strangely captivating meekness, wholly committed to being a supporting player. Her paradoxical love and selflessness are interesting traits to ponder, and they resonate more when considered theoretically than when applied directly to the novel’s characters and its dearth of action.
“There are such things as undeserved loyalties and inexplicable fidelities, people whom you choose with a youthful or, rather, primitive resolve or determination, and that choice prevails over maturity and logic, over resentment and the feelings of loathing felt by the deceived.”
Readers will need to cling to this curious and beautiful idea of a person’s “primitive resolve” to get through much of Marías’s plodding prose. The novel feels inappropriately lengthy and at times under-edited (some segments recap major plot points while others frequently repeat certain turns of phrase). Marías’s prose unfurls in ribbons of long sentences, which extend clause after clause towards much-appreciated periods. The story jumps ahead years at a time, and while the cascading timeline of Berta Isla further reveals Marías’s resistance to (or disinterest in) developing his characters, they allow him to shift his scenes through the geopolitical realm of the late 20th century. The Troubles of Northern Ireland and the Falklands War lurk just past the novel’s edges, leaving readers a rich political theatre in which to cast the mysterious Tomás and his organization.
Berta Isla will be as good as its readers decide to make it. Like Tomás, so much lurks in its “surrounding mists”; outside of the novel’s arbitrary framework, Marías invites his readers to explore and project upon a political and literary reading that is hinted at throughout the story. But these open pathways are linked by flimsy intrigue and a tired plot at the novel’s center. To many, Berta Isla will fail to inspire a deeper reading and will leave readers puzzled at how so many thrilling ideas could end up in such a tepid story.