Artemisa, Rembrandt van Rijn, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (image: www.ibiblio.org)
A human heart appears in the first line of Javier Marías’ novel A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco, 1992), but we’re given no time to discern its color, as in the second line it’s blown apart by a bullet. In this novel that plays about with the mystery genre, Marías has immediately delivered a gunshot victim and her killer - one and the same - leaving only motive as the mystery at the heart of the book.
The abrupt, violent suicide in the first lines recedes quickly into the background, remaining a latent presence as the narrative develops. After all, it’s a trauma that occurred well before the birth of the novel’s narrator, the thirty-five year old Juan, who recounts it retrospectively only after the event, unknown to him his whole life, has come to light. Teresa Aguilera, the victim, had killed herself during a dinner party at home just days after having returned from her honeymoon with Juan’s father Ranz, who would later go on to marry Teresa’s own sister, Juan’s mother. Much is packed into the opening of A Heart So White, not only a glimpse of the complexities and secrets in Juan’s family but also an implication critical to the themes of the novel, present in the first line and affirmed again in the chapter’s last line, that Juan may have preferred never to know this family secret, this awful truth.
From the violent event that anchors the first chapter, the narrative turns in the second to a relatively innocuous, almost comic incident, yet given a consideration almost as weighty as that given to Teresa’s suicide. On his own honeymoon in a hotel in Havana with his wife Luisa, who is suffering from travel illness, Juan gazes from the room’s balcony at a woman standing on a corner below, obviously waiting impatiently for someone. When the woman notices Juan, she begins gesturing and shouting, demanding to know why he’s in the hotel, hurling epithets, threatening to kill him. An explanation presents itself moments later: Juan has been mistaken for another, who has appeared on the balcony next door, visible to the woman though not to Juan. But a seed of curiosity has been planted, and when the woman joins the unseen man in the room, Juan strains to listen through the wall to their conversation, overhearing an ultimatum the woman gives to the man: dispose of the wife who stands between them, either by divorce or by murder.
Many writers might take this as the initiation of a plot involving the overheard threat. Marías uses it instead to seed the narrative with another latent background element, and turns his attention to the resonances of Juan’s concealment of the incident, to the slight delay his attention to it causes in his response to Luisa’s waking: “I still find that delay inexplicable and even then I sincerely regretted it, not because it might have any consequences, but because of what, in an excess of scruple and zeal, I thought it might mean.” In Marías’ world of quotidian moral decisions and the formidable sway of language and silence, Juan’s hesitation and failure to share with Luisa what he’s overheard, a conversation that she too, we learn later, has heard herself, amount to an intrusion into the trust established between them, a disturbance of the “soft white pillow” on which the newlyweds rest their heads and share their lives. Like a drop of tincture, the incident falls into the couple’s lives and colors them (not unlike the drop of blood on the stairs in the first volume of Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow around which that volume is built; someone could likely write an entire dissertation on the spots, stains, scars and spreading points of color or flame or contagion in Marías’ works).
A Heart So White takes its title, as do many of Marías’ books, from Shakespeare, in this instance Lady Macbeth’s declaration to her husband, “I shame to wear a heart so white” after having likened her blood-stained hands to Macbeth’s color, “as if she wanted to infect him with her own nonchalance in exchange for infecting herself with the blood shed by Duncan.” Marías explores this notion of moral contagion through his repeated milking of words and incidents – from little white lies to murder - to pursue their resonances and reverberations. Around a constellation of situations, Marías explores how the spoken and unspoken exert force upon his characters’ lives; the nature of secrets and withheld information (“What is serious enough to constitute a secret and what is not, if it is not told?”); whether one should protect loved ones from undisclosed information (as Ranz advises Juan regarding his marriage to Luisa, “If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her”) or whether it’s better to reveal all (as Luisa later advises Juan, “Everything can be told. It’s just a matter of starting”); the ways that language has a hold on the future should one elect to give it attention or not: the ability to hear what one wants to hear; to keep things unsaid or to voice them; to act or remain passive; how the very act of telling is a distortion; how language seems to carry an inherent quality of betrayal.
With a comic literalness, Marías unspools this last motif by placing Juan, Luisa and other minor characters in professions at the borders of language and truth: interpretation and translation. In fact, Juan and Luisa’s relationship is born from a blatant act of linguistic “treason”: when Juan finds himself assigned to translate between a British and Spanish diplomat with Luisa assigned as the “net” – an added assurance of accuracy in diplomatic interpretation – he flirts with and tests her by deliberately mistranslating the diplomats’ words, leading them away from affairs of state into opining on aspects of love (a lengthy disquisition on translation and interpretation, occupying an early section of the novel, must have made for an amusing task for Marías’ own translator, Margaret Jull Costa).
Marías’ rich exploration of language, silence, revelation, concealment, lies, and secrets is given added complexity, looking before and after, by his placing them in context of time and its mitigating or amplifying effects. References to time permeate the novel; the same paragraph can contain a plethora of time-related words, multiple verb tenses and compression of pro- and retrospection that take the reader, as Jonathan Coe notes in the introduction to my edition, on “a strange, violent temporal journey.”
Marías’ sentences often indeed feel like a journey, piling up into extended meditations that can stretch for pages between one character saying something and another answering, or long, improbable soliloquies. These digressive philosophical ruminations emerge not only from Marías’ narrator but from other characters, even minor ones, such that his characters can come off as nearly interchangeable mouthpieces for some common font of ideas and reflections. Trying to imagine actual people engaging in the conversations that carry some of these ideas reveals a blatantly unnatural quality to the thoughts Marías slips into his character’s mouths or alongside their speech (though not terribly unlike the manner by which ideas are conveyed in a Shakespeare play). This stylistic device is something akin to meta-fiction, a means for Marías to drop the pretense of the realist novel that characters imply persons one might find in the real world, and to embrace the enterprise of fiction. But far from being mere disembodied voices, polyphonically enlisted in contributing to a philosophical treatise, Marías’ characters have flesh – often memorably so, as in his vivid description of the woman downstairs at the Havana hotel, of a body in a video in which the face remains outside the camera’s frame, and especially of mouths: of the painter Custardoy the Younger’s “long teeth,” of Juan’s father Ranz’s face with its mouth “as if it had been added at the last minute and belonged to someone else,” of “the moist mouth that is always full and full of abundance” that belongs to Ranz’s friend Villalobos. Marías constantly reminds readers of physicality, to the point of emphasizing, even in the first line, the terrible vulnerability of the body.
Whatever thematic seriousness or ponderous quality might appear in these long passages that weave themselves into the characters’ thoughts and speech are balanced by Marais’ fondness for humorously toying with the absurdities of the modern world. In one scene, he backgrounds a heavy discussion between Juan and Luisa with, on the television in the same room, the nutty antics in a Jerry Lewis film. In another, as Juan and Luisa dine with Villalobos, the last comically keeps spilling food on himself (more spots, more stains). Some of the most humorous parts of the novel come in a section that takes place when Juan gors to New York to interpret at the U.N. He stays with his friend Berta, who, involved in a video-dating service, screens a number of men whose alpha-male pseudonym choices make for a hilarious list (and also make one wonder how A Heart So White might have differed if written in today’s world of the Internet instead of in 1992). And while Marías chases down serious themes about concealment and honesty, his digressions at time bordering on philosophical essays, his frequent asides take deadpan aim at day-to-day topics: television and video; the absurd brevity of weekends (“You’re so exhausted that all you can do is gather strength for the next week”); the pomposity of diplomats and politicians; the odor problem of open kitchens; America (“a country where they cosset and mould their bodies, but only their bodies”); the boredom of being a museum guard. A scene in which Ranz talks a guard at the Prado out of setting fire to Rembrandt’s “Artemisa” because of the painting’s static refusal to divulge its secrets is one of the novel's comic highlights.
One can hardly ask much more from contemporary fiction than that it bring readers back to the primacy of language and its power, to the care one must take with words and their repercussions, to the “dangerous” act of listening. Such attention to the potency of words and silence could almost lead to obsessing in a brainsickly way over one’s most innocent utterances. In the end, Marías reveals – in providing the missing motive of the first line – the dramatic consequences that can result from mishandling a secret (which I’ll conceal here so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t read the novel), and the potential of information buried in the past to spread its contagion and emerge in the future, staining even those unborn at the time of its burial.
But Juan muses at one point, “It’s strange that words don’t have worse consequences than they do.” In the end, A Heart So White turns not so much on the matter of zealously guarding one’s words as on carefully nurturing one’s love, of nudging along one’s trust and care more attentively. After all, A Heart So White is also a novel about marriage, that relationship presumably built on mutual trust. “Marriage is a narrative institution,” says Marías’ narrator, pointing out the conundrum of narrative and relation, of the gulf of care between the unspoken and spoken: “being with someone consists in large measure in thinking out loud, that is, in thinking everything twice rather than once, once with your thoughts and then when you speak.” The novel too, of course, is a narrative institution; rarely does one come along capable of provoking so many second thoughts about the way we communicate.
I read A Heart So White for Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Richard and Stu. Other reviews of the novel include those by Jacqui, Bellezza, Richard, Tony, and Frances.