A Heart So White by Javier Marías
The master of existential mysteries offers up one of his finest works
I am tempted to describe Javier Marías as an author of existential mysteries. His books revolve around enigmatic characters involved in shady pursuits, and there’s often an unexplained death and a curious narrator who wants to know what really happened. Yet our protagonist is never really a detective, more often an intellectual, an academic or translator in search of a moral compass—which, as we all know, is something very different from the kind of justice served up by courts and police investigators.
“It is difficult, with Marías, to segregate any single work from the others,” critic Wendy Lesser has written. “The experience of reading him is cumulative.” I felt that repeatedly while reading A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco in the original Spanish), Marías’s breakthrough novel from 1992, which won the lucrative International Dublin Literary Award. I had just finished reading Marías’s trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, published between 2002 and 2007, before starting on A Heart So White, and it often seemed as if the earlier novel were a variant or a precursor of the later one.
In both books, the narrator is a professional translator who is starting early on his mid-life crisis and is thrust in ominous situations he only dimly comprehends. Even the character names are the same. Both have been married to a woman named Luisa—a name that recurs elsewhere in Marías’s fiction. (The author himself has never been married, although his longtime friend filmmaker Agustín Díaz Yanes tells a journalist that his university buddy “was a womanizer. He always had very pretty girlfriends.”) The character Custardoy, an art forger, also appears in both novels.
But if you were detective looking for Marías’s fingerprints on this book, you wouldn’t even need this telltale clues. His writing style is unmistakable, filled with chronological displacements, recursive repetitions, serpentine sentences, angst-ridden monologues and poetic allusions—especially to Shakespeare who is the source of the novel’s title A Heart So White.
“My hands are of your color,” Lady Macbeth tells her husband upon learning of his murder of Duncan, “but I shame to wear a heart so white.” The meaning here is ambiguous—Marías notes that the whiteness might be a symbol for cowardice, and the wife would be telling her husband to “man up” to the responsibilities of his crime. But the whiteness might just as well be an emblem of innocence. In this case, Lady Macbeth is saying that she would not waste time worrying about its loss. In another line quoted by Marías, she tells her husband: “You do unbend your noble strength to think so brainsickly of things.”
Marías’s narrators do not follow this advice. They do ruminate brainsickly (what a great word—why don’t we use it anymore?) on their deeds and responsibilities. This is where they fall short of literary detectives who, in so many other regards, they resemble. The narrator Juan is a newlywed at the outset of A Heart So White, and is struggling to adapt to life his wife (named, of course, Luisa). But his way of finding his moral bearings in his marriage turns him into a quasi-investigator trying to uncover the secrets about three other couples. He is confronted with his father’s previous marriage, which lasted only a few weeks before his wife committed suicide for unknown reasons. Juan is also forced to serve as kind of private eye, assisting his friend Berta who has gotten involved with a creepy man met via a personal ad. Finally, our protagonist gets caught up as an involved bystander in a volatile relationship between a married man named Guillermo and his mistress Miriam.
In each of these cases, Juan wants to distinguish truth from deception, but even he isn’t sure why he is compelled to dig through secret histories, some of them dating back to before his birth. But this is the tragic flaw of all Marías protagonists, the quest for clarity, even when they realize that knowledge is irreversible, and once we learn painful truths they cannot be unlearned. Those who “think so brainsickly of thing” should proceed with more caution.
I fear that such descriptions may do more to deter readers than attract them. We are suspicious of moral discussions in the present day, and works of fiction that embrace the existential terror of ethical dilemmas are marginalized. They don’t climb the bestseller chart of earn big movie deals for authors. The irony is that those mega-hit movies are filled with moral stories, but always the most clichéd ones featuring cardboard heroes and ludicrous villains engaged in the most simplistic confrontations of good versus evil. So it simply isn’t the case that audiences dislike moral fictions—the truth is they crave them, but want them served up in reassuring scenarios that never force them to mull over the ethical issues of their own lives.
For that very reason, Marías is precisely the type of storyteller we need most in the current day. He neither simplifies moral choices, as happens in escapist fiction (and increasingly in fashionable literary fiction too). Nor does he avoid the core issues of the human condition with the various postmodern games that storytellers have learned in recent years. Perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic is that he forces the reader to think about difficult matters, and offers no easy way out.
No, that won’t get him a big movie deal. But that’s more an indictment on what blockbuster movies are about nowadays than it is a criticism of Javier Marías. To my mind, he is one of the most substantive novelists of our time, deserving a much wider readership than he has hitherto achieved outside of the Spanish-speaking world. And he seems on the cusp of achieving it. Marías hasn’t quite reached the tipping point that turns him into a global literary star—as has happened to a Haruki Murakami or a Roberto Bolaño or a Margaret Atwood or an Ian McEwan.
He belongs in that elite company, and I fear that the only reason he isn’t already there is for the worst of all possible reasons: namely, that he challenges the consciences of readers in ways they find distinctly uncomfortable. Sad to say, that might be the most pressing reason why they should seek out what he has to offer.