- - Friday, August 9, 2019

Berta Isla,” the latest novel from Spanish author Javier Marias, begins alarmingly: “For a while she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband, much as when you are dozing, you’re not sure whether you are thinking or dreaming.” 

This sentence about the eponymous character raises questions about how she and her husband had reached this pass. 

It also suggests the fluidity of perception and identity that has intrigued so many Spanish artists. Think of Don Quixote disporting himself as a knight of yore; of Pedro Almodovar’s characters experimenting with their personas, of Picasso’s portraits triumphing as portraits even when both the sitter’s eyes are on one side of her head. 

Most poignant of all is Garcia Lorca’s plaintive line Pero yo ya no soy yo — But I am no longer me.

Lorca died in 1936, presumed murdered by Francisco Franco’s forces during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Spain. In the 1960s, when Berta Isla and her husband, Tomas Nevinson, were growing up in Madrid, Franco still gripped the country in a dictatorship that punished nay-sayers with imprisonment, torture and executions.  

Berta lives to see better days in Spain after Franco’s death in 1975. Tomas lives, too. The son of a British father and a Spanish mother he is not only bilingual, but has an extraordinary talent for language acquisition and mimicry — a perfect job qualification for a spy.

But Tomas wants to become no such thing. After Oxford, he hopes only to return to Madrid, marry Berta and live a comfortable life. But with his language skills, he’s too valuable to let go, and he is coerced into British military intelligence. 

Tomas spends months on missions that he can never describe to Berta so the companionable marriage they had planned can never be. Instead, as Tomas explains, his life was replaced with another life, and “It’s too late now to recover the life I thought I would live. Parallel time also passes.”

A third-person narrator tells Tomas’ story, but not in detail, at least not about his missions. There’s a long central section focusing on Britain’s war with the Argentinians over the Falkland Islands in 1982. Terrorists were fighting it in Northern Ireland at the same time.

Tomas could have been in either place — or most likely, it seems, in both. Berta tells her own story, so we see her anxieties, live with her as she and her children grow older, and she fits her life into a pattern shaped by her husband’s work.  

The dual narration creates a tension between what Berta and Tomas experience and suffer. The reader, who hears and participates in both stories, is poised painfully between them, bereft by the knowledge that they cannot know what the other has endured because they have hidden their personal worlds from each other.

Also hidden — or at least densely veiled — is where Tomas operated or what he did. Though readers learn more than Berta knows, none of it is detailed. In contrast, his state of mind, his musings, are investigated minutely. Hypotheses are buttressed or undermined with reservations, other possibilities, illustrations, counter-arguments, and literary references — especially to Eliot and Shakespeare. 

Constructed of long exploratory sentences these meditations map the toll of Tomas’ work more frighteningly than any carefully plotted life-as-a spy tale could ever do. 

Equally memorable are several sharply focused set-pieces. Among them are Tomas’ final undergraduate adventure with an Oxford girl; the teen-age Berta’s pursuit by one of Franco’s policeman intent on beating her; even more, her terror when she realizes that two acquaintances are threatening to kill her baby with a cigarette lighter and spilled lighter fluid. 

At one point, Tomas and Berta discuss the scene in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” when the king masquerades as an ordinary soldier on the night before the battle of Agincourt. Perceiving him as one of themselves, his soldiers chat frankly with him. Next day, when the battle’s fought and won, they encounter him again, and realize that they have not spoken advisedly.

Punishment seems likely. But would it be fair, given that the soldiers did not know they were speaking to the king? As a man used to infiltrating other groups, Tomas speaks as a professional spy; as a woman whose life has been manipulated, Berta differs. 

Readers will perhaps judge between them. Certainly, they will always see or read this scene as an exemplum of deceit. 

Deceit and arbitrary power are the dynamos of this dense, compelling novel by one of Europe’s most admired authors. It’s long: 480 pages, but time reading and thinking about it will be well-spent.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

• • •


By Javier Marias

Alfred A Knopf, $28.95,496 pages

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