Of Espionage, Love, and Human Nature

In the ambit of contemporary Spanish literature, one of the most globally recognized names is Javier Marías Franco. Marías was born to a family of accomplished intellects. The patriarch, Julián Marías, was a renowned philosopher and lecturer who taught in prestigious American universities. The matriarch, Dolores Franco Manera, was a writer, translator, and teacher, professions that her son would also take part in. Meanwhile, his brother Fernando is an art historian while Miguel is a film critic and economist. Javier’s literary prowess did not fall behind his family’s towering achievements. For nearly six decades, he built a formidable literary career that produced some of the most critically acclaimed works of contemporary Spanish literature. His works are also globally recognized, some even earning him accolades, both within and outside his native Spain.

Marías’ interest in writing was cultivated at a young age. When he was fourteen, he wrote a short story The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga which would eventually be published in 1990 as part of the short story collection Mientras ellas duermen (While the Women are Sleeping). While studying at university, he started working on his first novel Los dominios del lobo (The Domains of the Wolf). It would be published in 1971 when he was just 19. He would publish one more novel before graduating from university. What ensued was a prolific career that spanned nearly six decades and featured some of the most recognized works in Spanish literature. His impressive oeuvre has earned him several accolades across the globe. Marías’ is also a familiar name that floats to the surface during the discourse on Nobel Prize in Literature.

Among his later works was Berta Isla. Set between Madrid and London, the novel chronicled the story of the eponymous Berta Isla. Berta, a fourth/fifth generation madrileña, was married to Tomás “Tom” Nevinson, who has Spanish and British heritages. They were high school sweethearts who first met in the 1960s, during Franco’s dictatorship. As many would have realized, no love story is a fairy tale nor is any a walk in the park. Even before settling down, the young couple had their ups and downs. There were points when they drifted apart, particularly when they both pursued their studies, but destiny was in their favor. They both knew that they wanted and will have each other; this conviction was one of the more endearing facets of their story. Berta, at a young age, knew that Tom was the man for her: I’ll have him. Her feelings were reciprocated and in 1974, after Tom returned from school, they married.

“You realise in your won life that some things are as irreversible as a story already seen or read, already told; things that lead us down a path from which we cannot stray or on which we can, at best, allow ourselves to improvise, perhaps a gesture or a wink that goes unnoticed,; a plan we must follow even if we intend to escape, because although we may not have chose it, we are on that path and it conditions our every move, our every poisoned step, regardless of whether we follow it faithfully or run away from it.”

~ Javier Marías, Berta Isla

However, Tom had to leave his young bride again shortly after their marriage. He went back to Oxford to pursue a doctorate degree in foreign languages. Tom has always been an achiever as a student. He also has a natural talent for languages. He can easily learn other tongues beyond his native Spanish and English. He can even adapt and imitate accents. This innate talent did not escape the attention and interest of his professors, particularly Peter Wheeler. Wheeler saw potential in him and upon graduating from Oxford, he recommended his mentee to the British secret service; The MI6 would then recruit the fresh graduate. While he was reluctant at first, he eventually acceded to being part of the secret service, thus, commencing his career as an underground agent.

“There was a time I was not sure if my husband was not my husband…” This was how Berta – who steered the narrative, along with an omniscient narrator – opened her story, underlining her growing fears. As the story moved forward, pieces of evidence started piling up – and the shadows of his job started encroaching on their family’s private life – showing that there was more to her husband’s work than strikes the eye. Due to the highly confidential nature of his job, Tom was barred from confiding with his wife. What ensued was a double life. To his wife, he had to lie, posing as an embassy employee. This assumed personality allowed him to use it as an excuse for his extended absences from home. Meanwhile, home meant Berta and their two children. Home also meant conventional domestic existence. Once he is called for service and training, he would disappear for months, often without a preamble. How would Berta survive such a life of uncertainty?

There are many layers to the story of Berta Isla that are worth studying. For one, the historical context made up for a lush backdrop for the story. From Franco’s dictatorship, Berta provided glimpses into the tumultuous period that ensued; the story covered three decades of the couple’s life. Political tensions and events were woven into the mantle of the novel. The Cold War reverberated candidly all throughout. Integrated into the narrative were details of the Falkland War, the Watergate Affair, and the insurgency in Ireland. There was also a mention of the PWE or Political Warfare Executive, a clandestine British body that was created to propaganda that either deconstructs or boosts the morale of countries allied with or occupied by Nazi Germany. Real historical personalities like Richard Crossman, Sefton Delmer, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Kevin Brady, and Father Alec Reid.

Marías masterfully walked the readers through the seminal historical events of the second half of the 20th century, including the fall of the Berlin Wall. There was a wealth of information that flowed from the book’s pages that was commendable; the level of research was astounding. The novel, expectedly, was wrapped up in a blanket of mystery. Espionage, which formed one of the cores of the story, relies on the different versions of the truth, sometimes outright lies. In this novel where the truth is often shrouded in several layers, the true nature of Tom’s missions was never revealed. This added another layer of mystery to his story and did not allow the readers to evaluate the moral boundaries his job entailed although there was a subtle commentary on historical amnesia, a reality that has become prevalent in the contemporary. “Even you seem to have forgotten that we fought a war against Argentina,” Tom confronted Professor Southworth. Forgetfulness or amnesia, most of the time deliberate, has become a convenient excuse to cover up atrocities, or at least assuage their real horrors.

“The truly decisive events are never shown or even described, or not at the time they happen; instead, they’re always kept hidden away, wrapped in silence, at least for a very long time; at most, we learn about them when they’re no longer of any interest, when they already belong to the remote past, and people don’t care about the past, they think it doesn’t affect them and can’t be changed, and in that respect, they’re right.”

~ Javier Marías, Berta Isla

But the novel does not reduce itself to a mere chronicle of historical events. The novel’s second layer captured the thorny landscape of married life. We read about the trials and tribulations of married life, with Marías vividly capturing its slippery slopes, complications, and complexities. In Berta, we see the epitome of a loyal wife who, despite her suspicions and the smoke that blurred her future, took it all in strides. During the first few years of their marriage, Berta took it all in strides. When her husband goes incommunicado, she would wait patiently. There were intense moments when she felt that her world would cave in but her love and fate for her husband trumps all of her fear. In hindsight, the story was a subtle homage to women who, historically, have been forced to wait for their husband’s return.

The real strength of the novel lies in its main character and narrator, Berta Isla. Away from the shadow of her husband, Berta was able to create a personality and a world that was distinctly her own. Marías, often recognized for his mastery in creating interesting and relatable female characters, portrayed, through Berta, the epitome of a strong and independent woman. On her own, Berta was raising their children while, at the same time, teaching as a professor and completing her doctorate degree. There were moments of weakness when she felt that she did not live up to the life she hoped for but she did not let it or her husband’s prolonged absence keep her from pursuing things she was passionate about. Her voice moved the story forward.

One of Berta Isla’s biggest triumphs was its grappling with the nuance and complexities of human nature. Identity was a prevalent theme but beyond it, Marías has reminded his audience of the role literature and fiction play in the exploration of human nature. While he explored positive traits such as love, trust, and loyalty through Berta, Marías was more preoccupied with the opposite traits. Layers of secrets provided buffers, not only for Tom but also for other minor characters. These are often met with perplexing responses, as can be expected. Deception and self-deception were recurring subjects as well. The agonies of waiting and the looming fear of insignificance and uncertainties resonated all throughout the story of Berta. It was begging the question, how well do we really know the people we love?

Apart from the rich historical context, cultural touchstones provided the novel an interesting complexion; Marías, after all, was born into a family of intellects. In particular, the novel was brimming with references to other literary works, such as the works of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is a blueprint of Marías’ works and he is known to use texts taken from Shakespeare’s oeuvre as titles for his works; Berta Isla is a deviation. There were discourses between husband and wife surrounding these literary pieces. TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was also referred to in the story; Tom repeatedly quoted Eliot’s work especially on the day that he turned into a spy.

“Basically, we’re all optimists, we go to bed convinced we’ll get up the next day. You gain confidence as you take on missions and assignments and emerge from them unscathed. Andd success of all kinds breeds pride, and, unconsciously, you develop a sense of invulnerability. If it went well this time, why shouldn’t it tgo well the next?, you think. And the more obstacles you overcome, the more scrapes you get out of, the more you believe that and the more risks you take.”

~ Javier Marías, Berta Isla

All of the novel’s fine elements were woven together by Marías’ skillful storytelling. While the plot played a secondary role in the story, he managed to capture readers’ attention and interest with his extensive exploration of human nature. It was complemented by his language and his words that reeled the reader in. It was deceptively elegant and brilliantly scheming. The flexibility enabled him to grapple with a vast territory of subjects. He steered the story with quite a command, diving deep into the predicaments of married couples while, at the same time, enamoring his readers with his own worldviews. The story slowly unfurled through the two primary narrators which allowed the readers different lenses through which to understand and appreciate the story. Overall, it was fascinating, but there were elements that were too good to be true. Berta’s enduring patience was one. Marías also had the tendency to be repetitive, thus, plodding down the story.

Marías’ talent as a writer and storyteller, however, cannot be denied. A work that straddles historical and literary fiction, Berta Isla was a multilayered novel, nothing less can be expected from a world-class storyteller and wordsmith of Marías’ caliber. He took the readers to a labyrinth that encompassed a bevy of subjects, from espionage to marital woes. The political tension that gripped the period was vividly captured by Marías’ writing; his research was astounding. However, it was his exploration of the nuances of human nature that was one of the novel’s greatest triumphs. It may masquerade as a spy novel but it grappled with intense emotions, both the positive and the negative sides of what makes us. It was not always even but Berta Isla is a riveting piece of literature.

“Peace, alas, is only ever apparent and transitory, a pretense. War is the natural state of the world. Often it’s open warfare, but when it’s not, war is always there in latent or indirect form or is merely a war-in-waiting. There are large portions of humanity who are always trying to harm others, or to take something from them, and rancour and discord reign at all times, and, if not, then they’re in the wings, watching and waiting.”

~ Javier Marías, Berta Isla
Rating

70%

Characters (30%) – 22%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

It was, if my memory serves me right, in early 2020 that I first encountered Javier Marías. He was recommended to me by a fellow book reader. I admit I have never heard of the Spanish writer up until that point. I wasn’t even aware of the extent of his excellence as a writer. This recommendation left a deep impression on me and whenever I have a chance, I try to obtain a copy of his works. Actually, it was A Heart So White that I was hoping to obtain as it was the specific book recommended to me. Alas, luck was not on my side but I would encounter his other works, Berta Isla was the first one. With my curiosity piqued and my anticipation of Marías’ prose building up, I included Berta Isla in my foray into European literature in May 2022. What I was not expecting was that it would involve espionage; Robert Ludlum and John le Carré came to mind. The book was rather thick but it was fine.  was enamored by the discourses on the double life Tom led and the hypocrisy of governments but the repetitiveness left me weary in the end. There was also very little action as the story was built around the discussion between husband and wife. Nevertheless, I was enamored by Marías’ writing and his exploration of human nature. Overall, it was a good and interesting read. Not what I was hoping for but it held my interest from the onset. This is not precluding me from reading Marías’ other works.

Book Specs

Author: Javier Marías
Translator (from Spanish): Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: July 2020
Number of Pages: 480
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

When Berta Isla was a school-girl, she decided she would marry Tomas Nevinson – the dashing half-Spanish, half-English boy in her class with an extraordinary gift for languages. But when Tomas returns to Madrid from his studies at Oxford, he is a changed man. Unbeknownst to her, he has been approached by an agent from the British intelligence services and has unwittingly set in motion events that will forever derail the life they had planned.

With peerless insight, award-winning, internationally bestselling author Javier Marias explores the complexities of a relationship hollowed out by fear and deception – the very bedrock of a spy’s profession. Astutely and hypnotically told, Berta Isla is a gripping novel of intrigue and missed chances – not only an espionage tale, but a profound examination of a marriage founded on secrets and lies.

About the Author

Javier Marías Franco was born on September 20, 1951, in Madrid, Spain. He was the fourth of five sons born to philosopher Julián Marías and writer Dolores Franco Manera. He was educated at the Colegio Estudio in Madrid. His father taught at several prestigious universities such as Yale University, hence, Javier spent his childhood in the United States. He would, later on, return to Madrid to study philosophy and literary sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid from 1968 to 1973. Post-university, he found employment translating English literary works into the Spanish language.

Marías’ interest in writing manifested at a young age. He wrote the short story The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga when he was 14; it would be collectively published with his other short stories in the collection Mientras ellas duermen (While the Women are Sleeping, 1990). When he was 17, he started working on Los dominios del lobo (The Domains of the Wolf, 1971), his first novel. His second novel, Travesía del horizonte (Voyage Along the Horizon, 1973) was also published while he was still studying. The publication of Todas las almas (All Souls) in 1989 consolidated his reputation as a novelist. His other works include Corazón tan blanco (A Heart So White, 1992), Tu rostro mañana (Your Face Tomorrow Trilogy, 2002, 2004, and 2007), and Los enamoramientos (The Infatuations, 2011). The last novel published during his lifetime was Tomás Nevinson (2021).

For his works, Marías earned several recognitions from across the globe. In 1986, he won the Premio Herralde for El hombre sentimental (The Man of Feeling, 1986). He also won the 1992 Premio de la Crítica Española; and the 1995 Romulo Gallegos Prize, 1995 Fastenrath Award (Real Academia Española) and the 1996 Prix Femina étranger for Mañana en la batalla piensa en mí (Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, 1994). Overseas, he won the 1997 Nelly Sachs Prize, the 1997 International Dublin Literary Award for A Heart So White, the 2000 Grinzane Cavour Prize, the 2011 International Nonino Prize, and the 2011 Austrian State Prize for European Literature. He also won awards for his work as a translator. In 2008, Marías was elected to Seat R of the Real Academia Española. In 2021, he was elected a Royal Society of Literature International Writer. For his achievements, it is no surprise that Marías is always part of the conversation for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Apart from writing, Marías was also a lecturer, like his father. He taught at prestigious universities in Oxford and Venice, and Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 1987 he started teaching translation at his alma mater, Universidad de Complutense, teaching there until 1992.  In 1997, he was awarded the title of King of the Kingdom of Redonda by its predecessor Jon Wynne-Tyson. Marías passed away on September 11, 2022, in Madrid due to pneumonia.  

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