Berta Isla by Javier Marias

In the last novel by Javier Marias that I read, Thus Bad Begins, I was impressed by the tie-ins to classic literature-even the title alluded to Shakespeare-and by the wealth of conditional and hypothetical phrasing. It was as if, upon a character entering a room, there was a need to determine the 12 most likely occurring scenarios and specify each one before the narrative could continue. Or rather, the web of possibility, what might happen in any life, was the substance of that character’s existence, as if possibility itself could be considered real.

In Marias’ new literary feast, Berta Isla, that feature of his prose is even more pronounced and couldn’t be, I believe, more intensified than it is. I ordinarily prefer more succinct prose-or I tell myself that I do-but faced with Berta Isla’s baroque splendor, I gave into awe before its architecture. It’s a beautiful reading experience, even translated into English so adeptly by Margaret Jull Costa; but in Spanish the language must be as lofty as one of the three balconies in Berta Isla’s Madrid apartment.

You won’t like it if you want a terse, concise read. Berta Isla is John le Carré squared with an even more literary spin. T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding from the Four Quartets is the off-quoted touchstone of Isla’s perpetually vanishing husband, who is called Tom or Tomás alternately in the text, which keys the two cultural and political worlds that intermesh in the novel: the England of Oxford and MI6, which seem married in the text, and Spain of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, where the novel concludes, or more properly, dissipates.

Isla marries her college sweetheart, Tomás, who, unknown to her, is blackmailed into joining MI6 to evade a trumped-up murder charge. Tomás has a genius for acquiring languages and is a brilliant mimic of accents and characters, which makes him ideal for espionage.

Gradually, as the result of many frustrating conversations with her husband, Isla forms a general idea of what Tomás really does for a living but can never discover any details. His absences from their home in Madrid are increasingly long, frequent and unexplained.

During one of those absences, Isla has over a wonderfully sinister couple who she has befriended in the park near her home, where she takes her infant son for some fresh air and to divert herself during the long, lonely days when she is missing Tomás. In a scene worthy of Hitchcock-high praise and deserved-the “husband” of the mysterious pair holds a cigarette lighter over her son’s cradle and is seemingly about to light it and toss it in.

Her family threatened by Tom’s work, Isla desperately tries to reach him, calling a series of names at the British Foreign office that she has heard her husband mention, most of which refer to diplomats who perhaps do not exist. Isla waits, home alone. Where is her husband?

There are quotations from Dickens and Melville’s Moby Dick among other “great writings”. Isla teaches English literature in Madrid. The quotations, especially those from Eliot, which are sometimes charmingly translated into Spanish, serve as essential guidelines to the meaning of the novel, as in a Melville seafaring story, where you might need guidelines of rope on deck to keep you from being washed overboard in a storm. Some Spanish vernacular expressions and terms are also brought up and discussed.

This is a novel that savors literature, that treats words, justly, as a pursuit for gourmands. Those who love the country of books and the provinces of language, as Javier Marias clearly does, will love this book.