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Espionage's personal costs

Berta Island
Forfatter: Javier Marias
Forlag: Penguin Books (England)

Javier Marías' writing has a strong anti-authorial nerve that is subtle and without illusions.

Those who have seen the series The Office at NRK, has gained a good insight into how agents juggle identities for survival, while defending society and the state against terrorist attacks and counter-espionage. The means and methods used are many, that is, amoral, and a good agent also manages to adapt to new environments quickly, including by constantly using new identities. In his great trilogy Tu rostro mañanas (in English: Your Face Tomorrow) Javier Marías addressed the topic of espionage, and i Berta Island he returns to the world of spies.

The main character Berta Isla is married to the young girlfriend Tomás Nevinson, who is Spanish-English, linguistically gifted and also a brilliant imitator – in fact so good that he could have gone straight into the entertainment industry. He and Berta get engaged before heading to Oxford to study. There he is subjected to a plot and forced recruitment into MI6: as a linguist and with an extreme ability to slip into roles and identities he is perfectly suited to foreign assignments.

María's writing often touches on the theme "the individual versus the state".

Here, the book could still look like a traditional spy novel, but Marías shifts the perspective and lets Berta take over the story. We are drawn into her life, with a husband who has been away for long periods of time on secret missions he cannot tell, since everything he reveals can put other agents at risk. The plot is set for the end of the Cold War, and during the Falklands War in 1982, Tomás embarks on a new mission – and disappears for good. Berta is left alone in Madrid with two young children. As the years go by, she accepts that Tomás is dead, probably killed out on assignment. Neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of London nor MI6 will confirm this, but they ask her to accept the situation and start a new life, without Tomás. After 14 years of coverage in England, he nevertheless reappears in Madrid, and the two try to live together: not as a young, newly married couple they were when he disappeared, but as two forty-year-olds who have both lost half their lives due to of the big politics they have sacrificed for.

The costs

The victim himself – the wait both have to survive, not knowing if they will see each other again – gets epic dimensions in the narrative, especially for Berta, which Marías gives a lot of space to. Even before Tomás disappears, she notices that he changes every time he returns home from a mission in England – he becomes increasingly restless, nervous and not least silent. And his silence bothers her, especially because she knows him mustn't keep track of what he does for MI6. And what he does changes him, closes him; the talkative, happy guy she has known from childhood disappears behind the duty of secrecy and banning speech.

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Marías observes and describes this process in great detail, in a kind of slow cinema, as if to open up the closed, secretive and taboo. The author plows particularly deeply into the time after Tomás has disappeared and Berta is left as a kind of "quasi- think" – unsure whether to grieve or postpone the grief indefinitely. In fact, this is reminiscent of Penelope at Homer, who has been sitting at the loom for twenty long years, rejecting everyone freer while she waits for her Odyssey. Homer wrote little or nothing about how time and the void after Odysseus characterized Penelope, but Marías thoroughly explores the phenomenon and shows how both Berta and Tomás lose faith in and trust in everything around them. Tomás in particular gets into trouble, as he constantly switches identities to trick people into traps: They pay with life, and the feeling of guilt begins to characterize him – a guilt he has to live with because MI6 forbids him to speak. The ban comes from the same state, The realm, the British kingdom that lures Tomás into MI6 and uses his abilities for all their worth, until he is burned out and taken out of service.

Marías often comes up with the theme "the individual versus the state" in her novels – and the individuals almost always come out of the encounter with state power. One pays a price to serve the state, and both Tomás and Berta pay in their own way. But everything is not destroyed between them: Marriage survives in a strange, almost mysterious way. Maybe because they never completely let go of each other's thoughts during the years while Tomás lived underground.

Although María's almost categorically denies that there is anything political in his novels, one still recognizes a strong anti-authoritarian undercurrent in everything he writes – especially when he writes about authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes, such as Spain under Franco and England under Thatcher. He does it subtly, and he does it without illusions. Perhaps that is why he is appealing to so many today: Isla – which in Spanish means "island" – gives a precise picture of Berta: a lonely and isolated island, surrounded by powerful, threatening forces on all sides.

Kurt Sweeney
Literary critic.

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