Tortured by Uncertainty

Javier Marias: Berta Isla ISBN 978-3-10-397396-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A romance, a spy thriller, Spain and the United Kingdom are the playgrounds and the subject is human endurance and the infinity of love. Sounds familiar? Right the past review had those ingredients as well and if it is a coincidence that I read the two books one after the other it is at least a strange one. “Berta Isla” however has nothing to do with the Napoleonic Wars, its framework is the Cold War, the end of the Cold War and the British government’s war against the IRA.

Tomas, the main male character is gifted for languages, so gifted he is recruited straight from University of Oxford by the British intelligence service MI6. He is young, talented, ambitious, and his wife Berta, living back home in Madrid, though not too happy with her husband’s repeated absences, tags along. She also puts up with Tomas’ unwillingness to speak about his job and the transformation of his psyche after his return from his studies. But one day, Tomas doesn’t come back. Inquiries about him lead to nothing? Is he alive? Should she wait for him? Should she start a new life? How far does love go? How much patience can one expect in the light of zero information.

Berta raises a child on her own, she sees time go by, the Franco era ends, the Cold War ends, and still there is no information about Tomas. The British intelligence service sends her money as a way of compensation, that’s it. Questions haunt her: Had he been deployed to the Falklands to fight as an undercover agent? Did he fight the IRA? Berta is contacted by a strange couple in Spain that seem to threaten her. Is that related to Tomas’ missions?

No knowing how to make sense of the disappearance of a beloved man is Berta’s tragic fate and her life in the midst of a sea of unanswered (unanswerable?) questions are the basic ideas of the novel.  I appreciated the plot and the language, but I found it too long. Berta’s many reflections of her and Tomas’ fate, the description of her conflicting feelings take too much space in the novel to remain interesting until the end. I found this truly sad as I did like the novel as such.

Do you know the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo? You should. Listen to his Concierto de Aranjuez, it conjures a tragic Spanish fate, a heart-braking mood and passionate love:

A Spanish Tragedy in the Embassy’s Office

One thought on “Tortured by Uncertainty”

  1. I have read Javier Marías’s ‘A Heart So White’ and ‘Infatuations’ in the splendid translations by Margaret Jull Costa. I like his style very much but, yes, he does over-write! Where’s a good editor when you need one?

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