Berta Isla

Javier Marias

Hamish Hamilton, £12.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

JAVIER Marias, a man of many opinions, once said that novelists “can only fully tell stories about what has never happened, the invented and imagined.” Whether or not you agree, in his latest novel, Berta Isla, in which his eponymous central character is the wife of a spy, Marias takes this idea as far as possible. Though not directly connected to his masterly trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, this new work by one of Spain’s foremost writers, shares many of the themes and locations in those books.

Set between Madrid and Oxford, it is the account, spanning 30 odd years, of a couple’s relationship, and the terrible strain put upon it by the husband’s murky profession. If fiction can only deal in the imagined, then a spy is a gift of a subject. Since someone like Tomas can never reveal what he is doing, his wife is consigned to months and years of fruitless speculation. She lives in limbo and yet, because she loves him, she copes: “She had discovered how boring it was to live with absolute certainty and how it condemned you to just a single existence, or to experiencing the real and the imaginary as one and the same”.

Tomas, for his part, becomes a secret agent with foreboding: “I will be who I am not, I will be a fiction, a spectre who comes and goes and departs and returns.” Like Berta he was brought up in Madrid. He is also bilingual because of his English father, so while Berta goes to university in Madrid, he studies at Oxford. They plan to marry when they graduate but while apart form brief attachments to others. This proves to be Tomas’s undoing. A brilliant mimic, he is approached to join the secret services by a professor rumoured to have been an agent in the war. Tomas rejects the idea immediately. But when his English girlfriend is found murdered, and he is the main suspect, only shadowy figures from the foreign office can save him from arrest. In return, he must pledge himself to the “defence of the Realm”.

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. A young policeman called Morse also makes an appearance, investigating the death of Tomas’s lover.

Marias often places real figures in his fiction, so to steal from a novelist is no great leap. Morse is a jarring note, though, too playful for the sombre subject in hand. Because for Tomas, joining the secret service ruins his and his wife’s lives. As the years pass, each records their predicament, a duet that grows increasingly bitter and resigned.

One of several memorable set pieces revolves around an argument in which Berta demands to know Tomas’s view of Shakespeare’s Henry V. She is preoccupied by the scene where, the night before battle, the king in disguise hears himself criticised by one of his troops. Should he punish the soldier, or would that be treachery of another kind?

It is a brilliant few pages, the couple’s heated debate ranging widely over the same ethical minefield they must navigate if Berta’s trust in her husband is to be upheld. She, for instance, does not like to think of the ways in which he must trick people into revealing secrets. Tomas, meanwhile, maintains that, unlike Henry V, “you don’t lay traps for the faithful”. This extended passage is the crux of the novel, the point at which this formerly tender couple realise what Tomas has become, and what Berta must choose to accept or not. What they cannot foresee is that worse is to follow.

The novel’s literary underpinnings serve not as distraction but as the scaffold around which it is constructed. Repeatedly Tomas quotes lines from TS Eliot, first read on the fateful day he turns spy. They are to prove prophetic: “And any action is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat, or to an illegible stone.” As Marias reminds us, we fool ourselves if we think we are in control of our fate.

As always, plot is secondary to the scenario Marias explores. In this he is a philosopher, like his father, endlessly deliberating moral quandaries. He knows that the surface hides much of what really matters.

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. Just once is there high drama – superbly executed – when Berta’s baby is mortally threatened by Tomas’s enemies. The reverberations of that roll down the years, but for the most part the novel takes place in its characters’ heads.

Marias is nevertheless clever in deploying a bloodless tone for a most disturbing subject. The result is powerful and indelible. What begins as a love story turns into tragedy of a peculiarly cruel nature. It is bearable, even enjoyable, only because he spares us all the details, and focusses on the essentials.