Javier Marías, Berta Isla

Javier Marías, Berta Isla. Hamish Hamilton, 2018. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Spanish novelist Javier Marías deals in what grammarians (and philosophers, probably) call epistemic modality: the degree of certainty in a belief or knowledge upon which a proposition is based. Things are left unresolved, indefinite, vague (as Berta tells herself, resignedly, towards the end of this intriguing, sporadically brilliant novel). From the opening words of Berta Isla this is apparent:

For a while, she wasn’t sure her husband was her husband…[next sentence] Sometimes she thought he was, sometimes not, and at other times, she decided to believe nothing and simply continue living her life with him, or with that man so similar to him, albeit older.

On the next page:

She had discovered how boring it was to live with absolute certainty, and how it condemned you to just a single existence, or to experiencing the real and the imaginary as one and the same, but then none of us ever quite escapes that.

This gives an indication of that unmistakeable Marías style, brilliantly translated (another act of interpretation, a central Marías theme) by Margaret Jull Costa. Long, looping sentences, multiple clauses, often loosely (paratactically) linked, as here with ‘or…’ Often the parallel possibilities proposed culminate with a generalisation seeming to come from the omniscient narrator, who invites the reader into complicity with the propositions stated, with a teasing air of certainty that’s at odds with the ambiguities and equivocations within those propositions.

Javier Marías, Berta Isla coverAmong the first posts I wrote on this blog was a series on Marías’ superb trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. This tendency to cloud certainties, the (un)knowability of a person or situation, was a central feature there, and in subsequent novels I’ve posted on (list of links at the end). Hence his interest in espionage, surveillance and secrecy, fluidity of identity, interpretation (and interpreters – of other languages, and of other people’s natures), predictability of possible outcomes.

Several characters depicted in earlier novels in this context feature in Berta Isla. Most notable is Peter Wheeler, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oxford University when this novel is set – from 1979. He’s also a recruiter of spies for MI6, dipping into the talent available in the student body.

Here his target is Tomás Nevinson, aka Tom (Marías habitually gives his central characters several names to match their multilingual skills.) Tom is half Spanish, half English, has an extraordinary capacity to acquire and speak foreign languages, and is a prodigy in mimicry: talents that make him ideally suited to the espionage work into which Wheeler recruits him (with typically nasty duplicity and subterfuge – the first of many treacheries).

The other main character also seen in earlier works is Bertram Tupra. He’s an elegantly louche, sinister, and as Berta finds when she meets him, seductive field operative who handles Tom and keeps him (and Berta) in line.

This is the trade of ‘dirty tricks’, made up stories. Because what Marías is usually about in his novels is telling stories about…well, storytelling. Marías’ novels thus become reflexive artefacts, halls of mirrors in which it becomes impossible to tell what is ‘real’ and what is reflected – or simply told. Here’s Tupra, a little patronisingly explaining to Tom soon after he’s lured into their world, what they’re about:

We both exist and don’t exist. We both act and don’t act, Nevinson; or rather [even the characters ‘speak’ like Marías’ own narrative voice – there’s that “or” clause again], we don’t carry out the actions we carry out, or the things we do are done by nobody.

Yes, it’s meant to sound like a riddle, a paradox. Like prose fiction, where what is usually intended to recreate truth and a real world – verisimilitude – is all lies, made up, fabrication and fabulation. Berta reflects (p. 369) on Tupra’s words (he’d told her much the same as he had Tom): ‘only what we’re told, what succeeds in being told, exists.’ That inserted qualification is telling.

This is Tupra a little later in that early speech to Tom, getting into his stride (it takes time; nothing is rushed in a Marías narrative; the reader has to yield to its leisurely, accretive flow):

‘We’re a bit like the third-person narrator in a novel, and I’m sure you’ve read a few novels, Nevinson,’ Tupra went on didactically. ‘He’s the one who decides what will happen and the one who does the telling, but he can’t be challenged or interrogated. Unlike a first-person narrator, he has no name and he’s not a character, therefore we believe and trust him; we don’t know why he knows what he knows and why he omits what he omits and keeps silent about what he keeps silent about and why it is that he can determine the fate of all his creatures, without once being called into question. It’s clear that he exists and doesn’t exist, or that he exists but, at the same time, cannot be found. He’s even undetectable. I’m speaking about the narrator, mind, not the author, who is stuck at home and is not responsible for anything his narrator says; even he can’t explain why the narrator knows as much as he does…’[and so on for another half page!]

That’s classic Marías: playful, witty, cerebral, didactic and knowing, teasing his characters, narrator(s) and readers with what’s apparently going on – or not. What exists and does not exist: this novel’s mantra – along with key enigmatic lines from TS Eliot. And there’s crucial reference to Balzac’s story ‘Colonel Chabert’ (also featured in The Infatuations), of a husband (or is it really him?) returned to his wife after a long disappearance. Ulysses and Martin Guerre are also invoked: revenant spooks, or real?

Omissions and known (un)knowns. For example, we learn that Berta studies for a doctorate, but the narrator withholds its topic or subject. We deduce, from her later career in academia, that’s in English literature. Another self-relexive feature in a novel of reflections. As I noted in my previous post, about a painting by Caillebotte in which a character looks out at the viewer, his back to a mirror in which we see reflected the other occupants of the café who both exist yet don’t exist. This is that ‘mise-en-abime’, epistemic self-referentiality, in which a person is both the knowing subject (as Foucault puts it) and the object of his own study. This stuff may not be to every reader’s taste, but I find it works a treat. Though I did find this novel flagged a little halfway through, then picked itself up again with a flourish for the final part.

As I’ve said in earlier posts about Marías, his work is clearly influenced by some of the authors he translated (interpreted) himself: Laurence Sterne, Nabokov, Faulkner, Stevenson and Conrad, all great fabulists and innovative manipulators of fiction; Sir Thomas Browne, with his labyrinthine style and eclectic, arcane subjects. Borges is in there, too, with his labyrinths.

Links in addition to Your Face Tomorrow: 

The Infatuations

 Thus Bad Begins