Straying outside the New York Times bestseller list has its perils. After my painful slog with Kingsley and Martin Amis a couple of weeks ago, I was dismayed to encounter some heavy sledding at the start of Javier Marias’ A Heart So White. It wasn’t the author’s fault. This is not a book that you can or should read while CNN is blaring in the background of the jury waiting room or that you can pick up right before bedtime. It’s a contemplative novel about listening and secrecy, the distinction between word and deed, the transformative power of words, and the entanglement between love and obligation. Marias demands your complete attention. He’s worth it, and A Heart So White is worth a second chance.
“I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests.” A Heart So White begins with the suicide of the narrator’s aunt. The narrator is Juan, who has adopted a don’t ask, don’t tell attitude about the circumstances of his aunt’s death and the marriage that followed between the death girl’s sister, Juan’s mother, and the dead girl’s husband, Juan’s father, Ranz. Now Juan is newly married, and his wife Luisa searches for answers.
The relationship between Ranz and Juan’s aunt is one of many relationships that Marias explores. On their honeymoon, Juan and Luisa eavesdrop upon the plotting of two lovers, the mistress suggesting that her lover hasten his sickly wife’s death. Juan’s crippled friend Berta searches for love in the personal ads but nets only brutal one-nighters. And then there is Juan and Luisa’s first meeting. The two are interpreters, facilitating the discourse between world leaders at international conclaves. Luisa is Juan’s net–the safety that ensures he is translating correctly. To impress her, Juan manipulates the conversation, and the Spanish politician and a thinly veiled Margaret Thatcher come to talk about love. The Thatcher stand-in insists that love becomes obligation, “Any relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions, as well as insults and humiliations. Everyone obliges everyone else, not so much to do something they don’t want to do, but rather to do something that they are not sure they want to do, because hardly anyone knows what they don’t want, still less what they do want, there’s no way of knowing that. If no one ever obliged anyone to do anything, the world would grind to a halt, we’d all float around in a state of global vacillation and carry on like that indefinitely.”
As Juan meditates upon the coercive force of love, he also dwells upon his father’s advice to Juan’s wedding day to let secrets remain hidden, “If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her,” Ranz urges. Juan distinguishes word from deed. The doer is guilty, but the instigator innocent he thinks as he ponders Lady Macbeth’s statement to her husband following Macbeth’s murder of Duncan, “My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white.” Recounting a deed alters the truth: “the only truth is that which is known to no one.” Listening is in itself dangerous, “Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out, knowing everything there is to know, ears don’t have lids that can close against the words uttered, they can’t hide from what they sense they’re about to hear, it’s always too late. Now we know and it may well stain our hearts so white, or are our hearts merely pale or fearful or cowardly?”
The danger of listening is ultimately canceled out by time and faded memory. as deeds become recaptured by the past. As Juan concludes, “Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing happens happens, that everything happened and at the same time didn’t, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, and even the most monotonous and routine of existences gradually cancels itself out, negates itself in its apparent repetitiveness until nothing is anything and no one is anyone they were before, and the weak wheel of the world is pushed along by forgetful beings who hear and see and know what is not said, never happens, is unknowable and unverifiable. Sometimes I have the feeling that what takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us 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 those identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be recounted, either now or at the end of time, and thus be erased or swept away, the annulment of everything we are and do. We pour all our intelligence and our feelings and our enthusiasm into the task of discriminating between things that will all be made equal, if they haven’t already been, and that’s why we’re so full of regrets and lost opportunities, of confirmations and reaffirmations and opportunities grasped, when the truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost.”
I’m less convinced than Juan that deeds are ephemeral, and I’m not swayed by his nihilism, but Juan’s meditations make A Heart So White one of the most thoughtful novels that I’ve ever read.