"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 24, 2014

"A Heart So White" by Javier Marías (Book review)

One of the greatest contemporary Spanish novels is A Heart So White by Javier Marías, a celebrated literary bestseller about honesty and memory and the weight of personal history, and at the same time a very funny and sexy book.

But first the title, "A Heart So White," which is a quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
"My hands are of your colour; but I shame / To wear a heart so white." 
These words are spoken by Lady Macbeth to her husband, who on her instigation has just murdered Duncan, the King of Scotland, by stabbing him in his bed. She helps Macbeth - who is bemoaning his crime - by putting the dagger next to the guards of the king, so that they will be blamed for the murder. She is just as guilty as her husband, she says, she also has blood on her hands, but at least she is not a coward like he "with his white heart" - she is continually questioning his courage and manhood to drive him on in his (or rather, her) criminal ambitions.

Such a title promises a book full of drama and that is what we get, at least for starters. The book opens with a dramatic suicide, where the narrator's aunt (to whom his father was married before marrying his mother, her sister) shoots herself in the chest, just after returning from her honeymoon. This has happened forty years before the present, and is a mystery the narrator's father never is willing to talk about. The next chapter jumps to the honeymoon of the narrator, Juan, a translator/interpreter working for the United Nations, who overhears a conversation in the neighboring hotel room where a woman is pushing her lover to murder his wife. This setup almost seems like a thriller, but don't worry, it is a serious book that mixes apprehension with reflection. We could say that elements of the thriller serve as a catalyst for existential observations. Against that background it is gradually revealed how the narrator learns the secret behind his father's three marriages - his father is an art expert who has become rich by defrauding his clients, and also something of a womanizer. In fact, as Juan will learn, discovering the truth does not solve anything, it only serves to make life more complicated.

Marías writes in the tradition of James and Proust, of Borges and Nabokov. His long, meandering sentences even reminded me of that other great Iberian author, Saramago, who also may start with the description of an event, to continue in the same sentence with a discursive observation. Marías has also been highly praised by W.G. Sebald, and indeed, he exhibits a Sebaldian obsession with history and memory (and even uses black-and-white photos in some of his books - though not in this one -, which was Sebald's trademark). His basic theme is the transience of human life, how everything belongs to the past as soon as it has happened - which means that everything is constantly in the process of being lost. A second theme is the ambiguity of language - not for nothing is his protagonist a translator / interpreter, someone who is well aware of the pitfalls of language.

But different from Sebald, Marías' books are also very sexy and full of humor. A good example is the scene in A Heart So White where Juan for the first time meets Luisa, the woman who later will become his wife. Juan is acting as interpreter at a private discussion between the premiers of Spain and Great Britain (the British PM is clearly Margaret Thatcher). As is usual at such high level meetings, a second interpreter is present to check on the first - for mistakes can have far-reaching consequences. This is Luisa and she is sitting diagonally behind Juan, watching the back of his neck, so he only sees her long crossed legs and Prada shoes out of the corner of his eye. Translating for these two heads of state, Juan intentionally misinterprets what they say (in fact, they don't have much to say, this is a very ironical act), just to see what happens. He watches Luisa's legs to get a cue as to how she will react: startled, she uncrosses them, but does not intervene. And as he goes on changing more and more parts of the conversation, leaving out certain remarks and adding others of his own fabrication, he notices that Luisa's "gleaming legs" don't move anymore, they remain crossed and only sway a little, a sure sign she isn't going to ruin Juan's career by speaking up - and for him also the sign "that she would allow him anything for the rest of his life." This is one the most beautiful and funny seduction scenes from all literature.

The book contains several scenes that echo other events in the narrative. The above mentioned, overheard conversation in the hotel foreshadows what Juan will discover about his father, although his father acted on his own initiative and his second wife, Juan's aunt, far from spurring him on like Lady Macbeth, was so shocked by his crime that she killed herself. And Juan learns this through another overheard conversation, between his father and Luisa, where Luisa persuades her father-in-law (who has a weakness for her) to tell her the truth about his first two wives.

Another example of such parallelism is "the person standing below in the street, looking up at the balcony." This is how Juan first sees the woman who comes for a tryst with the man occupying the next-door hotel room during his honeymoon (this happens in Havana, while Luisa is ill in bed with a slight form of food poisoning): the woman, a fierce, local type, stands in the street and he notices her "strong legs that seemed to dig into the pavement with their thin, high, stiletto heels." She then shouts at Juan sitting on the balcony and waves angrily with a swift flourish of her fingers, mistaking him for the man with whom she has a date - something which is only resolved when the man next door also appears on his balcony. Later, in Madrid, Juan notices a somewhat sinister friend of his father, who seems strangely interested in his marital relation with Luisa, standing motionless in the street, watching his balcony. And when Juan is on a business trip to New York, he stays with an old flame, a woman who is searching for romance by placing contact advertisements and sending out kinky videos of herself. She has had a traffic accident and now one of her legs is shorter than the other. She has hooked a man (also a somewhat sinister type, so here, too, is the suggestion that she could end up being murdered) and Juan has to leave the apartment and stand in the street during her lovemaking, so this time he becomes the one looking up at the balcony, waiting for a sign that the coast is free.

On another note, even certain reflections of the narrator are repeated, to demonstrate that our thought processes are often repetitious. An interesting thought of Juan that is repeated in the novel is:
"What takes place is identical to what doesn't take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience identical to what we never try, and yet we spend our lives in a process of choosing and rejecting and selecting, in drawing a line to separate these identical things and make our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told."
In short, Marías mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation, wading through the swamp of ambiguous language, to tell a tale where people never seem to learn anything about their true selves. But A Heart So White is also a highly engrossing novel full of human passion that is difficult to put down.

[Javier Marías - photo from Wikipedia]

Javier Marías was born in Madrid in 1951. His father was the philosopher Julián Marías who was banned from teaching as he opposed the France regime. As his father therefore moved for a time to the U.S., Marías was partly educated at Yale and Wellesley College. He became a translator of English literature into Spanish, and is known for his renditions of Shakespeare, James, Nabokov, Updike, Faulkner and Sterne, to name a few. In the mid-1980s, he lectured for a few years in Spanish literature and translation at the University of Oxford. Critical acclaim for his own novels came with The Man of Feeling (1986) and All Souls (1988), which was set at Oxford University, while his breakthrough to commercial success came with A Heart So White in 1992. Fourteen of his sixteen books have been translated into English, the last one The Infatuations from 2011. The protagonists of Marías' novels are often interpreters or translators, like Marías himself, "people who are renouncing their own voices."

Here is the answer Marías gave when during an interview he was asked what was the purpose of writing:
"I think it was Faulkner who once said that when you strike a match in a dark wilderness, it is not in order to see anything better lighted but just in order to see how much more darkness there is around. I think that literature does mainly that. It is not really supposed to “answer” things, not even to make them clearer, but rather to explore – often blindly – the huge areas of darkness and show them better."
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Javier Marías, A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco). Translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Penguin Books). With this book, Marías and Costa became joint winners of the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.