Even what exists doesn’t exist, says the spy Tomás in Javier Marías’ Berta Isla. What we do has already been relegated to oblivion the very moment we do it. Of course it’s uncknowledged, like the actions carried by someone who never was. Something like that. Even before we do it, it’s already non-existent. There’s really no difference between before and after. Before something has happened it hasn’t happened, and afterwards it hasn’t happened either…. 246
Who is a spy, a person who plays and discards so many parts? What’s left of the individual he or she once was? And is the cause for which he spies a chameleon too, simultaneously noble and despicable? Double-dealing and wilful ignorance are essential to the game of spying and they seep into the spy’s being like ink into chalk. The spy cannot be known by anyone else, he cannot even be known to himself.
Berta Isla and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription both deal with these ideas, Marías in his usual ruminative, obsessive narratorial voice, Atkinson in the crisp voice of Juliet Armstrong, a clever girl who, as she represents it, almost accidentally ends up in the secret service, transcribing the conversations between Nazi sympathisers and an MI5 operative posing as a Nazi organiser in Britain. But gradually we discover that she’s far from straightforward. Switching between wartime and Juliet’s life as a BBC producer ten years later, Kate Atkinson very cleverly beguiles us into Juliet’s vision of things and then lets reality come pushing in from the past as the links that the spy relies on for a convincing narrative are broken apart.
A more mundane book than the Marías, but one that keeps you guessing and keeps you thinking. Very enjoyable.
Here’s an interesting take on Transcription from Chris at Calmgrove: