Richard M. Cho reviews Berta Isla by Javier Marías

Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019)

“Textual roving” is how Javier Marías terms his writing process. “I work with a compass rather than with a map,” Marías said in 1992 after he published his fourth novel, A Heart So White, which swiftly elevated him to the upper echelons of great living novelists. Such roving begets digressions, parts of the novel readers and critics might consider “impertinent” or “inessential” to the central story. Hence, his novels are notoriously difficult to summarize; any summary of his novel is a mere skeleton, utterly inadequate as an attempt to portray what the book is “about.” Many of Marías’s characters, who often compulsively indulge themselves in extended reveries, are preoccupied with what they know, what they do not know, what they cannot know, and what they do not want to know. This epistemological uncertainty could be the basis for his digressive tendencies. Ever skeptical of his capacity to know something, a trait that appears in many of his characters, Marías derails and diverges, the narrative path splitting, skidding, and circling back.

In Berta Isla, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Marías soft-pedals on his signature styles. His digressive rhetoric is used only minimally here, and the chapters are divided into shorter sub-chapters of only four to six pages. It is his first novel to be titled after a character; Marías is known to borrow phrases from Shakespearean plays for his titles—A Heart So White from Macbeth, Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me from Richard III, Dark Back of Time from The Tempest, Your Face Tomorrow from Henry IV, and his last novel, Thus Bad Begins, from Hamlet. His longest novel to date at nearly five hundred pages, Berta Isla is a pointillistic character study of the eponymous heroine, a beautiful and energetic madrileña, mother of two children, and wife of the secret agent Tomás Nevinson, the man trained to embody betrayal as “principle, guide and method.”

All marriages are unique in their own way. As for Berta Isla, hers commenced thus:

He would never be able to tell her about his current exploits or his past assignments or missions, about the life he lived when he was away from her. Berta had to accept this and she did: there was a zone or a dimension of her husband that would remain forever in darkness, always just beyond her field of vision and her hearing, the untold tale, the half-closed or myopic or, rather, blind eye: a life she could only imagine or speculate about.

Berta falls “primitively and obsessively in love with young Nevinson,” and her teenage decision to pursue him (“I’ll have him”) yields a lifelong relationship of mists and shadows. Although Marías has examined the theme of marriage in a number of his earlier novels, it is in Berta Isla that he most extensively probes its limits. For an author obsessed with our incomprehension of the things that surround us, a marriage in which one spouse knows very little about the other is the perfect starting point for a story. Can Berta’s experience of marriage to a secret agent be a metaphor for all marriages?

When Tomás Nevinson was an undergraduate at Oxford University, he was recruited into MI6, somewhat against his will, by the wise and experienced Sir Peter Wheeler and his prodigy, Bertram Tupra. (Wheeler and Tupra appear in Marías’s trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, as well.) He was “completely bilingual, speaking English like his father and Spanish like his mother [. . .] added to this was the facility with which he could learn a third or fourth language, and his extraordinary talent for imitating voice and cadence and diction and accent.” Wheeler lures Tomás with his lengthy monologue “in praise of secrecy as the supreme way of influencing the world.”

Berta, perennially on tenterhooks, reluctantly accepts her husband’s professional duties until a couple of Irish agents, supposedly a married couple, shows up and inform her of Tomás’s involvement in Ireland’s conflict with the United Kingdom. They threaten her by simulating a motion to set fire to her firstborn baby. Then a decade into their marriage, Tomás disappears for good, proclaimed dead both in the UK and Spain.

Berta’s life, full of anxiety, trepidation, and uncertainty, is aptly drawn through the first-person voice, and bookended by a few chapters written in the third person. What kind of espionage Tomás is involved in when he is away the readers never find out, nor does Berta. It is merely implied that his acts involved “the dark side of the world, the one we ordinary citizens are never obliged to see.” Berta can only speculate his whereabouts based on the newsworthy national and international conflicts at the time: Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, the Falklands War between the UK and Argentina, Corporals Killings in Belfast, and more. As in Marías’s previous novels, human lives are ineluctably and surreptitiously affected by global events. Our lives are nothing but flotsam in the whirlpool of history, his novels seem to say. Berta, whose absent husband is professedly involved in current world affairs in an attempt to keep the apparent peace, knows that she is utterly powerless to change the course of their fate.

Marías’s novels impart his own notion of nihilism, a notion that furtively unveils itself in his prose until it becomes unmistakable. Our actions and choices matter infinitesimally little; cosmic meaninglessness triumphs over everything else, they seem to say. Here is a passage that appears twice in A Heart So White:

What takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told.

The same sentiment is conveyed in this passage in Berta Isla:

To traverse the Earth without our presence changing it one iota, as if we were mere ornaments, bit-part players or eternally motionless figures in the background of some painting, an indistinguishable, dispensable, superfluous mass, all of us replaceable and invisible, all of us nobodies.

However, unlike Friedrich Nietzsche or Emil Cioran, the messiahs of nihilism, who doggedly preached meaninglessness, Marías takes halting steps toward the idea of the irrelevance of our actions. His nihilism springs from humility, from his modest assessment of our capacity to know the material world and humanity through experience, language, and introspection. For him, life’s meaninglessness is not necessarily a void, but rather a puzzle, derived from our strictly limited ability to know. Berta’s life loses meaning as she is confined by the suspended marriage, perennially playing a waiting game, in a labyrinth without an exit.


Accused of being a writer of cosmopolitan novels that lacked the ingredients of “Spanishness,” Marías has sometimes been criticized for writing prose that sounds too much like translation. However, as one of the most prominent and renowned living writers in Spain today, Marías’s more than fifteen acclaimed novels have strengthened his candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He published his first novel when he was merely nineteen, and his second at twenty-one. He then took a long hiatus from fiction writing and instead began translating English and American novels by Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, and others, in order to dissect the narrative art of these masters. In 1979, when he was only twenty-eight, he received Spain’s National Award for Translation for his rendering of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. His digressive tendency in his own writing may well have sprung from his work on this wildly chaotic narrative. He has also received numerous awards for his works of fiction, culminating in the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 2011.

Marías is known for his long, hypotactic sentences in which the narrator incessantly self-corrects and explores every possible solution and speculation, all consequences of and faults in their reasoning. One can only guess how difficult it would be to translate Marías’s novels, but he has entrusted them to Margaret Jull Costa, who has ample experience working with writers of similarly long and unrelenting sentences, including José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Laureate in Literature. Jull Costa has long been familiar with Marias’s prose style—her translation of A Heart So White has won the 1997 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In Berta Isla, sentences composed of multiple subordinate clauses read seamlessly; her apt word choices convey the evolution of the characters’ trains of thought. Ideas both ingenious and complex are rendered in clear English in her masterful translation.

Such ideas, or rather the dialogues impregnating the plot with those ideas, dominate the progression of the narrative. However, on learning that one of the main characters is a secret agent, a prospective reader may ask: so, is Berta Isla a novel of espionage? Perhaps, although the only act of spying Marías allows us is when she watches from the high rise of her apartment building a man in a café waiting for her, the man with whom she had her first sexual encounter twenty years ago, when Tomás was away at Oxford. (He was extremely respectful of Berta’s virginity when they were dating.) With her husband proclaimed dead, loneliness propels her to seek him out—a former banderillero, now a typical, middle-aged man, grossly fat and bald. She is flabbergasted by how much he has changed and ditches him, although it was initially her idea to reconnect.

Berta Isla is another of Marías’s towering achievements, a highly engrossing work of fiction with plenty of philosophical tidbits. It explores the extent to which we can know others, be they strangers or spouse, and the consequences of shadows cast by that unknowability. More reader-friendly than his other novels in its formal construction, Berta Isla can be an apt primer for readers unfamiliar with his work. Incredulous of language’s capacity to convey thoughts properly, Marías has his narrator digress and distend her thoughts, revealing in the process many inconvenient truths about human lives, all lives that, according to Berta, “simply exist and wait.”