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In December I received a postcard from my brilliant and well-read friend L. One-lined and cryptic, it read only, “When will Javier Marias win the Nobel Prize?”

Because I am merely a pallid striver in emulation of L.’s wideranged intellect, my immediate response was, “Who?” After google-educating myself–Marias is a Spanish novelist, translator, and lauded op-ed journalist; he counts among his admirers the illustrious Coetzee and Rushdie; Scott Esposito chose one of his books for his 2010 group read; he is in fact frequently bandied about as a strong candidate for the Nobel though less than half of his novels have been translated into English–I called her immediately to confess my deficit and request a recommendation on where to start. After lengthy rhapsodizing and extolling the quality of everything, she finally offered up a title:  A Heart So White.

Because I could not find any to buy locally and am disinclined to read difficult fiction in e-format, I turned to the library, which took its characteristically plodding time in procuring a copy; as a result, it was not til February that I held the book in my hands. Once in my possession, the book took a remarkably long time for me to read through, not because it was bad or dull or overly difficult, but because I kept getting caught in rereading loops that propelled me back to the beginning:  an unusual experience, for I am typically a plowingly linear reader on my first go through a book. Something about this one–a labrynthal quality of the prose, perhaps, or just half-terrified overidentification with the narrator–burrowed alarmingly into my brain and pulled me into its world. I loved it. This is the type of reading experience that doesn’t happen to me very often as an adult and any book that provides it is immediately propelled into an exalted category.

At its outset, A Heart So White seems, at first, to be a mystery of the sort that delves into the uncovering of sordid family secrets. It begins, hauntingly, with the unwanted image of a suicide:

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 father’s gun at her heart …When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the girl had left the table, her father didn’t get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralysed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate

It’s a devastating opening, beautifully done, balanced tautly between the apathetic confusion of the servants, the polite horror of the luncheon’s guests, and the incomprehension of the no-longer-a-girl’s family. The death itself, the body, is described closely, but what remains strongest in my memory are the small details of the surrounding scene:  an ice-cream cake brought out by the maid who has not realized the occurrence of any tragedy; the father with his mouth still full of food, unable to swallow or spit, as he stands above his daughter’s body. It is all so utterly vivid and heartbreaking that I still am surprised that the whole episode is barely eight pages in my copy. These details are half a ploy, an aspect of the narrator’s stated desire not to know this tale, a conscious effort to slide the gaze away from the dead young woman.

I reread this opening chapter many times, as I’ve said; in part, I kept coming back to it as an anchor, a touchstone, to remind myself of what the novel might intend. I am glad that I did, that I ingrained this stark opening deeply into my mind; otherwise I might have been caught by the radically different narrative tone of the rest of the book and lost the thread of mystery that, despite many discursions, proved to be the frame of the book. On page nine the historical account ends and focus is turned the “I” of the first sentence:  Juan, the nephew of the dead young woman, is a thirty-four-year old interpreter fluent in four languages. He has just been married–a point of great surprise to every other character, who all consider him to be a natural life-long bachelor–and he is on his honeymoon. Though he believes that he loves his wife, Luisa, he is shadowed by an inexplicable sense of dread, a conviction that something in his marriage is fated to go terribly wrong. Ill omens lurk everywhere, a sense of dread and danger underlies actions and thoughts:  will young Luisa fall prey to these vague threats? will Juan? is Juan suffering under a family curse, or are the threats manifested from his own inability to commit to his wife? will their relationship survive, or are they caught in a spiral, doomed to repeat the tragic history of Juan’s parents?

This description makes the book sound quite plotful; I assure you, it is not. These questions are present, yes, and they are addressed and resolved satisfactorily by the end, but they very quickly receded from my interest, replaced by the solipsistic, stream-of-conscious fretting that is Juan’s primary reaction to the various taut encounters that make up the book. Though the book takes its title from Macbeth, from a line Lady Macbeth says to her husband after helping him to conceal his crime — “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white,” a reference that was my first glimmer that guilt and complicity are two of Marias’ major themes — Juan reminds me of Hamlet in his indecision, his passivity, his propensity to react to every situation with a hasty retreat into soliloquies of paralyzed anxiety. Juan is obsessed with the transience of experience and, as a translator, seems compelled to hear and understand and remember; at the same time, he is tormented by the futility of this impulse, by the subjectivity of reality:

I have a tendency … to want to understand everything that people say and everything I hear, both at work and outside, even at a distance, even if it’s in one of the innumerable languages I don’t know, even if it’s an indistinguishable murmur or an imperceptible whisper, even if it would be better that I didn’t understand and what’s said is not intended for my ears, or is said precisely so that I won’t catch it. I can disconnect, but only in certain irresponsible states of mind or by making a great effort, and that’s why sometimes I’m glad that murmurs really are indistinguishable and whispers imperceptible and that there are so many languages that are strange and impenetrable to me, because then I can rest.

This is a book of eavesdropping and voyeurism, of conversations heard through walls, stray sly comments that may or may not be purposefully dropped, of correspondences consumed by characters other than their intended recipients. I kept thinking of Bakhtin, the literary theorist I spent the most time with in college, and his theories of dialogism:  if ever a book is highly dialogic this one is; it’s a book to make me long for academia. The mystery unfolds through these layers of dialogism with a sharp interpersonal violence; all information is unwelcome to our beleaguered Juan. Despite his self-description as pathologically eager to absorb every piece of information, Juan’s first sentence avowal that he does “not want to know” is a more apt description of his existence throughout the book; much of the tension comes from his unwillingness to say or do anything at all. I am reminded of Hamlet in Juan because his passivity is elevated beyond a mere character trait to a sort of frantic existential angst:  he is tormented by the dialectic between wanting to understand and the futility of communication; the desire to record and remember, to create a coherent narrative of a life, juxtaposed against the pointless repetition and subjectivity of existence; the inherent instability of both personality and reality:

Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing that happens happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, and even the most monotonous and routine of existences, by its apparent repetitiveness, gradually cancels itself out, negates itself, 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. 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 of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told. 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. Or perhaps there never was anything.

The above passage recurs throughout the book, elaborated each time with new–but always thematically coherent, linked through their relation to the larger Macbethian idea of action, inaction, and personal responsibility–questions and worries. I expect that some readers might find this repetition tiresome and annoying, but I loved it; it is a symphonic, polyphonic buildup, utterly accurate to my experience of this kind of ongoing obsessive anxiety. It is, to say the least, very intense, but luckily the book has some genuinely delightful episodes (my favourite: a wonderful scene–the first time that Juan and Luisa, also an interpreter and a highly respected one, meet while sharing a job–of willful misinterpretation between two political dignitaries) to add levity to the mixture of fretfulness and dark plot. Also–and luckily, because Juan really is a putz however much I might identify with his maunderings–there are some great side characters:  there is Ranz, Juan’s father, debonaire and firm in his withholding of information, cultured and charming despite his tragic past and his scurrilous business ties; Custardoy the Younger, an art forger, undesirable family friend, lecher and vulgarian and lifelong nemesis to Juan; Berta, Juan’s friend, former lover and fellow translator, a lonely expatriate adept at manipulating her hapless ex-lover into collusion. Even Luisa, the young wife, emerges as an interesting character, though this is almost accidental:  if there is an ebb point to my enthusiasm over this book it is in her characterization and that of their marriage, both of which are weak. I am inclined to think this an intentional choice, meant to illustrate something about Juan and his perhaps congenital inability to exist within a romantic relationship; even so, I do wish that there were more reasons given for their marriage beyond basic commonalities of both enjoying movies and cigarettes in bed:  the book puts forth an interesting, if cynical, theory on the structure of emotional obligation that underlies every relationship, and I would have liked more information to determine how Juan and Luisa fit into this rubric (particularly since it’s a system that Juan, at least, seems to accept as fundamentally valid).

In conclusion:  a wonderful, affecting book, interestingly structured, darkly compelling. I am absolutely eager to read more Marias:  I have already taken steps to get copies of All Souls and The Dark Back of Time, which I intend to read consecutively. I will give it a few months before I pick him up again, though; if his others get into my head the way that this one did I might not be able to bear it.

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