Javier Marías: Berta Isla

You have to give time and attention to Javier Marías’s novels. His books are complex and the characters talk and reflect a great deal. They’re an acquired taste.

To my mind, they’re worth the occasional heavy lifting. If you want to understand the legacy of Franco and how he shaped Spain, Marías is your man. Also he knows better than almost anyone how to parse the complexity of marriage (a subject, admittedly, I’ve never mastered).

My first of many visits to Spain was in 1968, when Franco was still in power. I lived for a summer in San Sebastian where the Basque separatists were very much underground … even open expression of their language was forbidden.

Today, in retrospect, I understand the iron grip Franco had on the country and the unspeakable crimes that were committed in his name. I’ve also come to understand the horrible legacy of the 1976 pacto de olvidio (pact of forgetting), wherein the Fascists agreed to cede power on the condition that no one be held accountable for crimes committed during the Civil War and dictatorship.

I first encountered Marías when my book club read A Heart So White, a novel that centers on a translator and the mystery of his father’s marriage. Then I read Thus Bad Begins, a novel about a young man who works as an assistant to a film director, his employer’s dysfunctional marriage and his possibly criminal friend and associate.

BertaIsla-550x745His new novel, Berta Isla, tells the story of Tomas Nevinson, a brilliant young man with an uncanny facility for flawlessly speaking multiple languages who, against his will, is conscripted into the British Secret Service. He and his wife, the title character, meet in the 60s, both convinced they are destined for each other. This conviction is sorely tested during the course of the novel as Nevinson’s work requires him to live multiple other lives, fraught with constant danger. Berta is kept in the dark about the nature of her husband’s work and must suffer his long absences.

The novel’s background is the major social and political upheavals from the 60s to the near present: the Falklands War (about which I’d almost entirely forgotten), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Berta Isla is herself highly intelligent, literary (there are allusions to Elliot, Melville, Shakespeare, Dumas), and reflective. And that’s a good thing because the novel spends a lot of time on her inner world. The chapter where her child’s life is threatened by an IRA operative is one of the most chilling I’ve read in a long time.

Berta Isla is an unusual suspense novel, sort of a slow thriller. It’s a book about secrecy, suspicion, deception, loyalty, trust, and, ultimately, about marriage and the limits on ever completely knowing another person. It’s also about national character, Spain’s and Britain’s, and what shaped each.

Yes, it’s a bit rambling and discursive but somehow it works. You just have to have an appetite for that sort of thing.