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Javier Marías: Berta Isla (Berta Isla)

With the opening sentence of For a certain period, she was not sure that her husband was her husband, Marías sets the tone. She is the eponymous Berta Isla, a Spanish woman born around 1950. Though much of the focus of the book is on her, the story is told in the third person, She has a fairly conventional middle-class upbringing in Madrid, though, of course, the country is still under Franco. She goes to a school, called Estudio, where she will meet Tomás/Thomas Nevinson. Tomás (I shall use the Spanish version as that is what Marías mainly uses) has an English father and a Spanish mother. His father works for the British Institute in Madrid, so the family live there though frequently visit the UK. As a result, Tomás speaks fluent English and Spanish. However, he also has a gift for languages and accents, and can imitate many regional British and Spanish accents and, during the course, of the book, will acquire a knowledge of other languages and other accents.

Tomás goes to Estudio later, aged fourteen, but when the pair meet they fall in love and, as we know from the beginning of the book, will eventually marry. However, before that happens, each goes to university. Tomás goes to Oxford (his father is from Oxford) while Berta goes to Complutense in Madrid. They have not had sex before going to university and both will have sexual experiences at university. Berta will attend an anti-Franco demo and will be rescued from a truncheon-wielding policeman by a bullfighter, with whom she has sex once. Tomás has a desultory affair with Janet, a woman who works for the second-hand bookshop Waterfield’s (it really did exist but has now closed down).

Towards the end of his time in Oxford he has a chat with one of his dons, Peter Wheeler, whom we have met in several other Marías novels, particularly the Tu rostro mañana (Your Face Tomorrow ) trilogy. Wheeler, we know from these books, is not only an Oxford don but also a spymaster and something of a Machiavellian character. Because of Tomás’ linguistic talents, he tries to persuade him to join the spy fraternity. Tomás refuses outright. Very soon afterwards, Tomás is caught up in a most unpleasant incident in which he is essentially told that he risks prison. However, were he to join the spies the matter would be buried. We do not hear his decision but we know, from the rest of the novel, what it is.

He returns to Madrid, nominally to work in the British Embassy and that is what Berta assumes he is doing. He frequently has to travel to London but that seems normal. He seems very morose, and very detached from her and the world, which worries her, but she assumes it is simply because he is busy, though she suspects he has a hidden side that he will not reveal to her. The couple will eventually have a son and, somewhat later, a daughter.

One day, she is out in the park with the son (the daughter has yet to be born). A couple start talking to her in the park. They seem to know her, claiming they have met her at an Embassy cocktail party (they work for the Irish Embassy, though he certainly seems to be Spanish and she speaks excellent Spanish). She has no recollection of having met them but talks to them and meets them regularly. She even invites them back to her flat. After a while they tell her they are going to have leave Madrid and do not know where to but, in the meantime, they have a warning for her. Tomás, they tell her, is a spy, is working in Belfast and is in danger. (This was during the period of heightened IRA activity.)

Berta tries to contact Tomás but, unusually, is unable to do so. When she phones the contact number, he is normally not there but someone takes a message and he phones back in a short while. This time, this does not happen. She tries again but without success. Tomás has mentioned some names to her (we know that at least one of them is a nickname he has invented) and she asks to speak to them. No-one has heard of most of them but she does manage to speak to one of them, who tells her that Tomás is in Berlin and cannot be contacted. She must be patient and wait. She then tries to contact the Irish Embassy about the couple but no-one there has heard of them.

Tomás does, of course, eventually, after several weeks, reappear but refuses to disclose where he has been. He half-admits to doing some work for the Secret Service but will say no more. Moreover, if, as she suggest, she wants to leave him, he will understand but prefers that she does not. Tomás, as Wheeler did with him, tries to defend the nature of spying, as protecting the country, a country which, she says to him, is not really his. She has been studying World War II history (she teaches English history) and has found out about the dirty tricks used in World War II but Tomás insists that that no longer happens. She is not convinced.

When the the Falklands War happens, Tomás is off again the next day. This time he is away much longer. She hears nothing from him and starts to get worried but is reluctant to contact the number she has been given. The weeks turn into months and then into years. She gets a visit from an official, who tells her that he has disappeared but they do not think he is dead, as they would have heard. He could be in prison, he could have gone AWOL.

The story is told primarily from Berta’s perspective. For her, the awful situation is knowing that she has a husband who is essentially concealing much of his life from her. She is also dealing with the fact that, when he disappears, he may be dead, a prisoner or just decided to have gone into hiding. In short, she is living a life which is a lie and full of uncertainty. Even when he is there, he seems distracted and morose. The opening sentence of For a certain period, she was not sure that her husband was her husband refers to the fact that this man is not the man (she thought) she married. Other women may well have left him. She does not.

Her surname means, of course, island and this name is clearly no accident. If she has friends or colleagues she is close to, we do not hear of them. Though her two children are mentioned several times, we almost never see them as actual characters and neither Berta nor Tomás actually talk to them during the course of the book. The only people she seems to have any real contact with are her parents-in-law and they die during the course of the book. Berta lives in her own world, with or without Tomás.

From Tomás’ perspective, he feels he has been duped into serving in the Secret Service and clearly does not like the job yet carries it out, at least in the early part of the book. He seems completely detached from the world, including the world of his wife and children. Essentially, two lives have been destroyed and probably four if you count the children, though we never learn the effect on them.

Berta follows events in the world news and, in particular, in UK news, with some eagerness, both because she teaches British history and because of Tomás. We see, from her perspective, the horrors of war and terrorism. Because of Tomás’ possible involvement in the IRA and because of the Falklands War, those are the two events she follows most and we hear about the horrors, particularly the actions of the IRA and the British soldiers. She wonders more than once whether Tomás might have been a victim. She also refers to the Franco police (perhaps surprisingly for a Spanish novel, little mention is made of the Spanish Civil War, though the one time it is mentioned, it is to describe horrors) and to the ETA, the Basque terrorists. Passing reference is made to other such events around the world. Marías is clearly writing an anti-war, anti-terror novel and pointing out that at least some of the horrors happen covertly, using dirty war tactics. Tomás states How much death is like life and Berta repeats this statement later and it is clearly a key theme of this book.

The closely related theme is the power that the state has over the individual. Most of us probably do not give much thought to this but first with the Franco state, under which Berta and Tomás grew up and which Berta demonstrates against, and then the power of the British government over Tomás (and, therefore, ultimately, over Berta as well), the effect and terrible power of the state over individuals is seen and condemned.

I have read and enjoyed nine other novels by Marías, some more than others but there is no doubt that this is, to date, his masterpiece. It is by far the longest book of his that I have read, which gives him the opportunity to explore the issues in some considerable detail which I can only touch on in this review. It is a very original and intelligent story. It raises key issues of our time. In particular, it is a book that will stay with you for some time.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish in 2017 by Alfaguara
First English translation in 2018 by Hamish Hamilton
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa