Berta Isla by Javier Marías

Berta Isla 
by Javier Marías
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Knopf, 2019

Berta Isla   by Javier Marías translated by Margaret Jull Costa Knopf, 2019

The Spanish novelist Javier Marías has the soul of an antiquarian. The most absentminded pinchaúvas, tasked with scanning his oeuvre, could easily produce enough evidence to convict Marías, in whatever type of court convicts for that sort of thing, of adoring, among various other odds and ends: antique cufflinks, typewriters, and fine fountain pens, along with rare book stores, etymologies, signet rings and candles, tarnished silver and aftershave, first editions, gas streetlights, and wrought iron. Expand the compass a bit, allowing your ink-stained concorder the freedom of educated guesswork, and he’d probably add a few more items to the list: pâté, walking canes, escritoires, and jeweler’s loupes; barbers, stuffed owls, harpsichords, and chairs whose legs end in bird-claws; unaccompanied cello suites and houndstooth and outdated globes, and on and on and on, down into the musty, doily-lined vortex where the trinkums of the former world lie, nibbled at by moths, in a rosewater pool.

In Marías’s major works—think A Heart So White, Dark Back of Time, and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me—this antiquarian drive is usually self-aware, and leans towards the mutedly parodic. His much-praised style—typified by a love of coolly baroque asyndeton—has always been slightly tongue-in-cheek, reflecting a strangely ahistorical sense of detachment, that of a severely analytical brain coming to terms with the reticulated sprawl of modern passions. The half-vatic, half-sociological pronouncements that fill his pages—as, in Berta Isla, his observation that “anyone who has grown used to waiting never entirely consents to that waiting coming to a close”—are the remnants of an ancient wisdom, vestiges of the classically omniscient narrator. In his gamier works, like Berta Isla, this constitutional elegance falls too thinly on his chosen subjects, and can leave the text feeling like a strangely refined smorgasbord—a caviar meatloaf, for instance, or a swordfish casserole. The brain is willing, in other words, but the plot is weak. 

Though it’s dolled up in the trappings of a spy thriller, Berta Isla is really about passivity, and the forbearance that allows one to continue living for decades alongside a person who is, for all intents and purposes, a ghost. The plot revolves around the lovely (but not too lovely, we’re assured) Berta Isla, a Spanish woman who marries a spy and has, as a result, a pretty subpar conjugal life, one rife with scissions and absences and minor confrontations that never explode because the gunpowder of suspicion is, for professional reasons, denied Berta. Berta’s husband, Tomas, is “barred from explaining whole months of his existence” to her, and “ends up feeling he has the right not to explain anything ever.” At one point, Tomas disappears for a couple of decades, which is pretty frustrating, though Berta never completely abandons the idea of him, or his return. What’s strange is that Marías never really applies a value judgment to Berta’s beatific patience—it’s not heroic, not weak, not ill-advised, not wise, but also (and obviously, since it’s the subject of a five-hundred page novel) not superfluous. 

For Marías, Berta’s patience is essentially a tenuous mirror of the novel’s other manifold concerns. Berta Isla sees Marías running through a diluted pharmacopeia of his traditional themes, which are trimmed and repurposed for the exigencies of the central spy plot. The sub rosa and parastatal maneuverings that bring regimes tumbling down or, otherwise, produce no discernible change in the world, so subtle yet vital was their enacting, are his biggest thematic concern. The book’s at its best when Marías returns to his fascination with parallel time and the mercurial ghost of the might-have-been, a curious dimension he umbrellas under the concept of “the dark back of time.” Marías considers, for instance, how the unknown acts committed by spies, and the tragedies thereby averted, are similar to Berta’s lack of knowledge. “It’s as if what doesn’t happen somehow lacks prestige,” Marías writes. “And it’s the same or worse with what we don’t know.” Though the prose never quite reaches the zodiacal purity of his best writing, it’s this concern that ends up producing some of the book’s most poignant passages. “That could have been Tomas’s fate, to be plunged into...the dark back of time,” Marías observes. “To be this: a blade of grass, a speck of dust, a thread, a lizard climbing a wall in summer, a cloud of smoke that finally disperses; snow that falls but doesn’t settle.”

The general level of thought in Berta Isla is safely high-brow, with occasional musings on the public gaze and the “over-exposure” of eminent people that neuters their actions, which (the musings) read as though someone’s spiked Marías’s sherry with a tincture of Baudrillard. “Anything that is visible, a spectacle in the public domain, can never create change,” Marías posits, priming our attention’s pump for a book-length discursus that never materializes. The scattershot nature of the book most fully reveals itself in Marías’s dilettantish engagement with politics, which he treats as one more sublime surface on which to cut up the lines of his scintillating prose. The book ranges over the Falklands War, the Troubles, and the Francoist regime, but the hinted-at connections between the parenthetical nature of Berta’s experience during Tomas’s long absences and those equally parenthetical historical periods in which “citizens are given carte blanche” to enact “mortally serious carnivals” of crime never receive the attention they deserve. Comparisons between Tomas’s work at MI6 and the actions of the sociales likewise seem to be have been shoved together à contrecœur, like two weird kids on a school field trip, so little attention does Marias give to his alignment. 

Marías, despite the luminous prose, is primarily a writer of scenes, and since Berta Isla is told largely in dialogue, we’re not treated to as many heartbeat-quickening set pieces as we might ordinarily be—though admittedly, for those who are into such things, there’s an ecstatically limned scene in which an enemy spy, in a threatening display of faux absentmindedness, nearly lights a baby on fire. Instead of a steady spool of carefully wrought tableaus, we get a handful of scenes that are pale reflections of Marías’s prior pulse-pounders. When Berta Isla arranges to meet an old lover, Esteban Yanes, at a cafe near her apartment, she decides at the last moment to spy on him from her balcony, a set-up that’s strongly redolent of the opening scene of A Heart So White, in which a man on a balcony is verbally assaulted by a woman on the street below, who’s mistaken him for her flakey lover. The problem is that so much of the mystery, duplicity, and baseline incalculability of the scene in A Heart So White has been sapped away—Marías’s famed metaphysical voyeurism becomes, simply, an act of looking.

And that seems to be the biggest problem with the book—all in all, it’s a little superficial, with Marías’s limning of the Spanish 1960s coming across as hand-holdy, a touch over-glossed. Part of this is probably just a result of being an international writer, which can force anyone to over-explain the parochial. It does feel at times, though, that Marías’s internationalism has started to dilute his books. Who’s the intended audience, for instance, of the narrator’s note that “in an American university” the holder of a strangely titled professorship “would have been called the head of the Spanish department”? And what exactly is the reasoning behind the book’s handful of synoptic section-openers, which read like the voiceover in a nineties Scorsese flick? “In 1969,” we’re told, “two fashions were doing the rounds in Europe, both mainly affecting the young: politics and sex.” It’s the sort of line that almost demands T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” start playing after the period.

What Berta Isla ends up revealing is that the difference between material conservatism (née antiquarianism) and good old-fashioned, the-kids-aren’t-alright cultural conservatism is often hardly a difference at all, if the subconscious drift of Marías’s mind is taken as the barometer. Surly, spittle-flecked generalizations about modernity multiply like Burke’s proverbial flies of summer, with Marías, a philosophic admirer of the man of action, taking umbrage at the slacker mindset of today’s youth. “They are the norm, an overprotected, idle humanity,” he writes, “which has sprung up out of nowhere after centuries of exactly the opposite: action, restlessness, boldness and impatience.” It’s an odd line to find in a book that so demonstrably organizes itself around a prolonged instance of waiting, that foregoes intellectual adventurism in favor of staid rehashings de haut en bas, and that, in its long eventless drag, exhibits a painful patience of the worst sort—that is, the writer’s patience for himself. 

—Bailey Trela is a writer living in Bushwick.