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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Berta Isla

Javier Marías

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To purchase Berta Isla

Title: Berta Isla
Author: Javier Marías
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 480 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Berta Isla - US
Berta Isla - US (Spanish)
Berta Isla - UK
Berta Isla - Canada
Berta Isla - France
Berta Isla - Deutschland
Berta Isla - Italia
Berta Isla - España
  • Spanish title: Berta Isla
  • Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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Our Assessment:

A- : appealingly languorous and unexpectedly suspenseful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 18/9/2019 Alexandre Fillon
FAZ . 23/5/2019 Fridtjof Küchemann
The Guardian . 18/10/2018 Marcel Theroux
Literary Review . 10/2018 Matt Rowland-Hill
Le Monde . 2/9/2019 Florence Noiville
NZZ F 14/6/2019 Roman Bucheli
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/8/2019 Mara Faye Lethem
The Observer . 7/10/2018 Anthony Cummins
El País . 16/12/2017 J.G.Vásquez
The Spectator . 13/10/2018 Lee Langley
The Times . 27/10/2018 Ben Cooke
TLS . 13/3/2018 Daniel Gascón
World Lit. Today . 5-6/2018 César Ferreira

  From the Reviews:
  • "Berta Isla ist nicht als Spionagethriller angelegt. Die Stärken auch dieses Romans liegen in der für Javier Marías kennzeichnenden Art, sich in komplexe, widersprüchliche, diffuse Gefühlslagen hineinzuarbeiten, die er selbst als pensamiento literario, als literarisches Denken beschreibt. Wozu könnte das Tastende, sich Auswachsende dieses Stils besser passen als zu einer Situation der Unklarheit, der Unsicherheit, des Wartens und Hoffens, während sich die eigenen Gedanken selbständig machen ?" - Fridtjof Küchemann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This is not a novel about spycraft, the drama of going undercover, or even – despite much allusion to the subject – the moral choices attending the profession of secret agent (...). Marías is above all interested in negative states: waiting, uncertainty, insignificance, ignorance, deception and self-deception. Throughout the book, he enacts his characters’ various degrees of puzzlement in winding digressions about the mists and vapours that obscure our knowledge of each other and ourselves." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian

  • "Umso fassungsloser steht man vor dieser enormen Verschwendung an Talent. Und so viel vergeudetes Papier (arme Bäume !) -- aber erst: Wie sinnlos wird hier Lebenszeit verschleudert -- die des Autors zuerst und nun die der Leser. Noch nicht einmal als Parodie möchte man sich einen Roman wie Berta Isla gefallen lassen. (...) Marías vollführt lediglich eine gewaltige Kulissenschieberei, wirft alle paar Seiten die Nebelmaschine an und holt seine sämtlichen Requisiten aus dem Fundus der Klamotte." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Marías, a celebrated Spanish author, offers up a masterly premise and plot that are worthy of a Hitchcock adaptation, and the denouement does not disappoint. Yet the novel’s achievement is marred by baggy prose, indulgent pacing and dialogue that reads as if life were a long dinner party of droll philosophical anecdotes and its guests were spies who liked to quote T. S. Eliot." - Mara Faye Lethem, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Marías’s trademark long sentences -- stories in themselves, undoing facts even as they’re stated -- unspool a twisty, thought-provoking tale that puts notions of truth and morality under pitiless scrutiny." - Anthony Cummins, The Observer

  • "(L)a prosa de Marías, digresiva y heterodoxa, está llena de meandros y desvíos donde acaso nos encontremos una joya perdida, o es capaz de dar vueltas como un tiburón alrededor de su presa, asediando una emoción, una revelación o una humilde verdad humana. Lo que quiere esta prosa es rescatar, del flujo incesante de los acontecimientos, aquello que no sabríamos ver sin ella: quiere detener el tiempo -- o trastocar su normal comportamiento -- para que no se pierdan ciertos movimientos, con frecuencia los más frágiles, de nuestra sensibilidad y nuestra conciencia; quiere hacer visible lo invisible, hacer que salga a la superficie eso que permanecía hundido porque nadie había sabido verlo." - Juan Gabriel Vásquez, El País

  • "Berta Isla has many of the master’s signature preoccupations -- identity, thwarted communication, the power of poetry. (...) The elegant translation, once again by Margaret Jull Costa, is alive to every nuance. An ironic twist reveals a monstrous deceit, but one not difficult to guess. I missed the wit and audacity of the earlier novels; the pace is leisurely, and after a marvellously tense opening sequence as the jaws of a trap slowly close on Tomàs, there’s little sense of danger." - Lee Langley, The Spectator

  • "Like most of Marías’s novels, Berta Isla revolves around ideas of what we know and do not want to know, of what we do not and cannot know, and the nuances and difficulties of communication. It makes many connections to his earlier works, especially Your Face Tomorrow. Like them, it takes place in a sort of epistemic haze. It is, if anything, more sinuous and satisfying than many of its precursors. (...) (D)igressions abound in Berta Isla. Sometimes the novel verges on being an essay. (...) Berta Isla is often aware of its closeness to self-parody -- the joking Oxford dons doubling up as spies, the slow, mannered prose and hurried sex, the seemingly endless musings and hesitations. But it is also full of humour and intelligence, and ranks as Marías’s best novel in years." - Daniel Gascón, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)dentity and deceit take center stage in this narrative along with other recurring topics in Marías’s fiction. (...) An ambitious work filled with mysterious and sublime moments, Berta Isla is a rich and complex novel and can be regarded as some of Javier Marías’s best storytelling to date." - César Ferreira, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Berta Isla is narrated in part by the eponymous woman who marries Tom/Tomás Nevinson, and the novel is their story -- together, in part, but much more also separately, as Nevinson's work takes him away from home for extended periods of time at a time -- including, ultimately, a very extended period of time. Nevinson is: "simultaneously Spanish and English", growing up in Franco Spain with an English father and Spanish mother; among his talents is one for languages -- "He was completely bilingual, speaking English like his father and Spanish like his mother" -- and mimicry, as well as being:

one of those people to whom others tend to tell things without being asked -- he came across as likeable and sympathetic without even trying, and he was a wonderful listener, whose intense attentiveness always flattered and encouraged his interlocutors, unless, that is, he chose not to listen, in which case he would cut the conversation short -- making him the repository of their trust without even wondering why they were talking so much about themselves or why they were blithely divulging secrets without having them wheedled or coaxed out of them.
       He and Berta Isla already are a couple in high school, and even as their relationship loosens some when they start there studies -- far apart -- their bonds again tighten when Nevinson returns to Madrid, and they marry in 1974, when both are still just twenty-two.
       Nevinson had gone to Oxford to study, and his talents did not go unnoticed. After all, his: "linguistic gifts are extraordinary, and very rare, especially among the British, who have no talent for languages at all" -- and it doesn't hurt that: "Anything he heard he could learn instantly, could memorise and later reproduce with precision and skill". Unsurprisingly, then, he is recruited by a shadowy arm of the British government, some part of the secret services. Professor Wheeler -- familiar to readers from some of Marías' earlier novels featuring an Oxford locale and secret service background -- makes the pitch, but Nevinson turns him down.
       The secret service isn't used to not getting their man and their way, and circumstances force Nevinson to reconsider. Circumstances he really should have considered more closely in the moment but, being, young, rash, and cowed -- including by a local young police investigator name Morse (Enfield rather than Endeavour, alas) -- he allows himself to get swept up and away in. Right into the arms of Bernard Tupra -- another familiar face and figure from earlier Marías novels, and quite the character:
Mr.Tupra was young in years, but his insolent, resolute attitude indicated that he was, in fact, ageless or had spent centuries installed in one unchanging age, one of those individuals who must have had to grow up very early or who, having been born grown up, instantly understands the way of the world, or the darkly sinister part of the world he happened to be born into, and decided to skip childhood, considering it a waste of time and an education in weakness. He was not much older than Tomás, and yet it was as if he were his senior by a whole lifetime or two.
       And so, Tom/Tomás begins a double-life. A conventional domestic one in Madrid with wife and soon two children, and a local job, and then a secret other life, when he is called away to be trained and then sent on missions, often spending months away from and out of touch with his family. Parts of the novel have an omniscient third-person narrator, including much of the beginning describing how Nevinson came to this life, but Berta Isla narrates many of the parts that address his mysterious other-life -- effective, because it is something he can tell her very little about, and which she thus doesn't really understand very well.
       After a few years of marriage Berta Isla is unpleasantly confronted with mounting evidence that there's more to her husband's work than she is aware of, especially on his long stays away, and she confronts him and he does have to reveal to her the basics -- that he is something of a secret agent, and that he is sent on (dangerous) missions. He slips into roles, as one of the anonymous forces who: "wards off danger and defends the Realm", in behind-the-scenes actions that can never be publicly acknowledged. As Berta Isla comes to understand, her husband's life truly is split, into the domestic arrangement she is part of on the one side, and something of a black hole on the other. As Nevinson insists:
Nothing that happens on those missions has anything to do with you, I thought that was clear, that you accepted it. It simply doesn't exist as far as you're concerned. It shouldn't even exist for me. And it doesn't exist, I don't know how I can put it more clearly. It doesn't happen, it doesn't take place.
       Yet of course Berta Isla is keenly aware of the vacuum of his extended absences, since it determines so much of her own day-to-day life. Still, she manages reasonably well even when her husband is incommunicado for months at a time. It's only when his absence is an even more extended one that things get complicated. It seems reasonable to assume that she would learn if something bad had happened to her husband -- if he died on a mission, presumably his superiors would be aware of that and would communicate that to her -- but instead she finds herself in a kind of limbo, and Tupra, who comes to explain things, turns out not to be the most reliable of sorts; the secrecy of these authorities has rather many self-interested layers to it, and truth -- or at least an accurate report of the status of things -- remains ... fluid. But regardless of the situation, after all, Berta Isla and her family are taken care of; that's something that Tupra made clear, to Nevinson and then also to her, that there's never any question of them all not being taken care of (unless someone spills those secret beans ...).
       There's little information in Berta Isla of what Nevinson might actually have gotten up to on his missions. He returns from one with a scar, and at points he does whinge about the danger he faces, but there's essentially no actual description of him doing any of the spying or whatever work it is he gets up to. Berta Isla does recount some of the political tension and events of the times -- the Falklands conflict, for one, and the still violent clashes in Ireland -- and imagines her husband's possible roles in these, but there's never much tangible evidence pointing to what he might have been involved in. Instead, the novel focuses mostly on the waiting: Berta Isla's, in particular, but then also Nevinson's, when he is sidelined, in a manner of speaking, for an extended period of time. And with a sense of possible danger always in the background, for both husband and wife, regardless of their location, Berta Isla is surprisingly suspenseful, in a more clever way than a conventional spy thriller.
       The novel also easily jumps over significant periods of time -- it begins with the couple as schoolchildren, after all -- and at several points: "The years passed and then more years passed", as Marías only focuses tightly in on specific times and episodes. So too a denouement of sorts comes after a very long period, when Nevinson comes to realize that an assumption on which his whole life has been based wasn't exactly what he thought. This is almost too neat a discovery -- and, indeed, one that doesn't come as all too much of a surprise; Marías doesn't exactly telegraph it, but readers surely will have long seen this coming -- and it is a bit much for the novel, and Nevinson, to handle; where does one go from there, after all ? But Marías handles it as well as one can this particular kind of twist, and so the book's resolution is also a rather fitting winding down -- and an intriguingly odd take on a life-long relationship that, for so much of the time, has been at some distance.
       What makes the novel is the telling, and both in the sections narrated by Berta Isla as well as the omniscient narrator Marías impressively unfolds these lives and this story. Some of the reviewers seem annoyed by the run-on exposition and description, but this is expertly, beautifully done stuff. Marías steps wrong once, not with the thought but its expression, in Nevinson's final confrontation with Tupra -- "A thought crossed Tomás's mind, but he immediately dismissed it: "I hope he didn't take too much of a liking to her" --, a rare instance of a too-rushed brusque simplification even of something like a thought that passes only in a flash , but otherwise Berta Isla is a splendid, indulgent read, a long novel that even as it focuses on very little happening -- the action, as it were, almost all either implied, as threat, or entirely off-stage -- is as exciting as any conventional spy thriller.
       The set-up allows Marías to reflect on a variety of his favorite themes, and there are some beautiful observations which often then play out in the story as well. For example, there's the issue of the dangers of assuming a role and pretending to be someone else:
The great danger is isn't that the agent will be unmasked (although that remains a danger, of course), but that he ends up too immersed in the role he's playing, that he loses sight of who he is in reality and who he is working for.
       And, with the background that moves across Franco Spain and Thatcher-England and towards the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question of what is being fought for also bubbles constantly just beneath the surface, with Nevinson's missions never revealed so that it remains unclear what forces exactly he helps and which he undermines -- with Berta Isla reminding her husband that:
the truth is one can never know if other people's causes are good or bad, even those of your own country when that country isn't a source of shame, as, until only recently, was ours; or should I say, my country. Causes belong only to their representatives, remember, and they are always temporary and lose authority as one succeeds another. [...] If we find it hard to know whether our own causes are good and can blithely deceive ourselves about them, imagine how hard it is to know about other people's causes. We don't even know what they are.
       Despite so much in it being left shrouded in these ways, there's a crisp clarity to Berta Isla. A thoroughly enjoyable deep dive, very well done.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2019

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Berta Isla: Reviews: Javier Marías: Other books by Javier Marías under review: Books about Javier Marías under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Spanish literature under review

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Javier Marías lived 1951 to 2022.

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© 2019-2023 the complete review

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