For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband, much as, when you’re dozing, you’re not sure whether you’re thinking or dreaming, whether you’re actually in charge of your own thoughts or have completely lost track of them out of sheer exhaustion. Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older. But then she, too, had grown older in his absence; she was very young when they married.
So begins Berta Isla, Javier Marias’ most recent novel, and right away we are plunged into Marias’ world of doubt and unknowing, of blurred identities made more obscure by the passage of time. We’ve been there before in A Heart so White and Thus Bad Begins and that feeling of disquiet, of being unsettled, creeps up and takes residence in our minds from the very beginning.
This introduction is in fact a brief fast forward to the end of the story of Berta Isla, a madrileña, and her half Spanish, half English husband, Tom Nevison. They were childhood sweethearts, having met at school in Madrid, and Berta knew as a teenager that he was the man she wanted to marry. They were apart in their late teens, when Tom went to Oxford to study, but married when he returned to Madrid, where he got a job working for the British Embassy. She’d noticed a change in Tom when he returned from Oxford: the easy, carefree Tom had faded rather. He’d become a little anxious, he had problems sleeping, and these troubles became more marked each time he was gearing up to leave Madrid for London. The London trips become more frequent. Tom is away for weeks at a time and Berta has difficulty contacting him. This comes to a head when she’s befriended by an odd Spanish-Irish couple in Madrid who inveigle their way into her confidence and end up endangering the life of their baby- she can’t contact Tom and has to deal with this alone.
In the meantime-the narrative switches back and forth between Berta and Tom throughout the novel- the reader knows that when Tom was finishing his Oxford degree, he’s summoned to the rooms of Oxford don Peter Wheeler. Here, he’s given the infamous tap on the shoulder, i.e. invited to work for the Secret Service, where his talents as a linguist and a mimic would be highly valued. Wheeler uses all the arguments he can drum up to persuade Tom: is he content to lead an ordinary, humdrum life, exerting no influence on the course of world events, an outcast from the universe, or does he want to make a difference, does he want to be involved in the Defence of the Realm? At first, Tom refuses. Then, a set of circumstances arise which put pressure on him and he sees no alternative but to agree. He returns to Madrid, working ostensibly for the embassy but spending more and more time away on the unknown activities Berta is forbidden to ask about.
After the threat to their child, Tom comes back and long Marias- like conversations with Berta ensue-intense, one-to-one, in claustrophobic indoor spaces. He tells her what happened at Oxford and a little about his work for what he calls the Foreign Office. She is aghast at the idea of him being an infiltrator: this is Spain in 1976, just 6 months after the death of Franco, and the memories of the work of the Brigada Política-Social, the sociales, are still very much alive. These were spies working for the Brigada who infiltrated radical groups pretending to be one of them, while passing back information to the Brigada. Berta can’t stand the deception, the pretence of friendship involved in such relationships and is horrified that Thomas could be an infiltrator. Thomas insists he can’t tell her more and they both know she has the choice between accepting this situation or leaving him.
She doesn’t leave him. She’s had a second child by now, a little girl, and has become a lecturer in English literature. She’s somehow got used to the life many married women live, where husbands work away for long periods of time, who just get on with their professional and family lives, supported by family and friends. (Though we meet none of Berta’s friends, move away rarely from her solitary internal monologues). Tom’s final departure happens in 1982, just after the invasion of the Falklands, and this time he doesn’t come back. We’re told how Berta deals with this over the months and years and how the British authorities treat her-and in the last 100 pages learn from Tom’s perspective a little about what’s happened to him in the intervening time. As we know from the beginning Tom does turn up again in Berta’s life, after an absence of many years. He’s a virtual stranger and the quiet ending sees them finding a modus vivendi with which they can go forward. Yet there’s no resolution. They’re both still waiting.
The Secret Service offers up a whole world of possibilities for a writer like Javier Marias with his predilection for concealment, for unknowing and shifting identities. Some familiar tropes drive the plot forward: those claustrophobic one-to-one conversations seen here in the form of the conversation between Oxford don and student, amongst others. There is more of his inventive word play: the twisting of the phrase outcasts from the universe to include the ivory tower don Mr. Southworth in his remote Oxford college, in his post outside the universe. The translator Margaret Jull Costa must be praised here for her rendering of this word play into English. The text is threaded through with literary references too-here T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as well as Shakespeare. ( I actually love it that a married couple discuss the question of treachery through the lens of a scene from Henry V).
But there’s also that, to me at least, less appealing Marias trope of the male gaze, especially at the beginning, which had me thinking ok here we go, do we have to have the female don in the bookshop characterised as a sex goddess? But, as before, I ended up overlooking that, because there are other things which I found compelling-and very chilling. While I was reading, the deliberately oblique, and only occasional, references to Ireland stopped me in my tracks: I’ve recently watched the BBC4 documentary Spotlight on the Troubles:A Secret History and the atmosphere created by Anna Burns in her Man Booker prize winning novel Milkman is forever seared onto my brain. The images and references to the Troubles in Berta Isla hit me hard. But later, while the novel was still percolating through my mind, I’ve become angry at the British establishment, plucking young, inexperienced men and women and luring them into a world from which they’ll never be free, which will prevent them from ever leading a normal life. While the top brass, all knighted, as Marias points out, direct things from afar, remote from what happens to the agents in the field.
This is a powerful and compelling read with its slow but steady pace, its skilful build up of tension and its oblique, glancing references, all contributing to the unsettling atmosphere of uncertain identity, of not knowing. And of course the question of adopting different identities in the Secret Service world just feeds into that larger question of do we ever really know the people we’re closer to, the ones we share our lives with? I enjoyed the way Marias moors these more existential questions in the particular historical and political contexts of 60s and 70s Madrid and Oxford. And I enjoyed spending time in the Marias world with a female protagonist this time, with Berta Isla.