Javier Marías

A Heart So White

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A Heart So White Summary

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Originally published in Spain in 1992, the novel A Heart So White by Javier Marías was translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa in 1995. Written in an oblique, recursive style that echoes the long, complex, and nuanced sentences of Henry James, the novel is, on its face, a family mystery – the story of a man trying to uncover the truth about his father’s three wives. However, at the same time, Marías builds philosophically rich, digressive interior worlds for his characters to be trapped by and in – to some readers, this structure parallels the prisons of consciousness in works like Sartre’s No Exit. The novel’s structure is circular, as characters try and fail to connect with one another and are doomed to repeat themselves in frustrated efforts to bridge the gaps between them.

Juan imagines his father’s second wife – his mother’s sister – committed suicide shortly after their honeymoon.

Juan works as a high-level interpreter, a job that puts him in the middle of conversations between delegates and representatives’ at various multilingual international congresses. He is supposed to be an entirely see-through, blank mirror that simply renders words from one language into another without any changes or inflections.

However, Juan is obsessed with the idea that a tiny change in tone or phrasing could be enough to shift the meaning of a conversation – and eventually the whole relationship. As he listens to the speakers, he considers that his job is to prevent misunderstandings; he finds it interesting that he is really the only person in the room who understands the conversation in its entirety.

One day, he is assigned to work with Luisa, an interpreter who is there to make sure he does the best job possible interpreting a meeting between two heads of state. He finds her attractive and flirts by introducing small inventions of his own into the translation, shifting from being a mirror to being the puppet master of the conversation. It also allows him to pretend that he could solve the problems being addressed in this meeting by just rewriting the dialog between the world leaders until it is perfectly in sync. Instead of correcting him, Luisa plays along.

Juan and Luisa get married, although it is not clear that he feels an overriding passion for her. Instead, he seems to think that it is time to settle down and that the advantages of comfort and sexual connection outweigh the benefits of living alone. He is glad to feel that at night someone literally has his back in the bed.

As Juan travels for work, he is away for weeks at a time. When he has to spend eight weeks in New York soon after they are married, Luisa stays behind in their home in Madrid to make sure the house is set up for their lives together. While Juan is away, Luisa starts to develop relationships with the people in his life. She grows close to his father, Ranz and to Custardoy, the son of Ranz’s best friend.

Ranz is an art dealer whose charm and charisma remain strong even though he is now seventy years old. She learns that Ranz has been married three times. His first wife, whose name and existence has been kept from Juan, died mysteriously in Cuba, maybe in a fire. His second wife was the sister of Juan’s mother, who shot herself in a bathroom during a family dinner soon after their honeymoon. As Luisa tells Juan more and more details that she is uncovering by talking to his father, Juan is forced to wrestle with the question of whether he wants to know what he doesn’t know. After a life spent listening to people in order to fully understand their meaning and be able to render it perfectly into another language, Juan is coming to see that listening can actually be a dangerous thing.

At the same time, as he considers his father’s relationships with these women, Juan is forced to consider the truth about his own marriage and its lack of fundamental passion. Increasingly, he worries that Luisa is finding this elsewhere – perhaps with Custardoy, a womanizing man who has never let an attractive woman go by without letting her know how he feels.

Although the novel eschews any elements of the suspenseful thriller its plot would suggest, instead, dwelling on digressions and philosophical disquisitions, the last quarter the book suddenly picks up speed as the revelations about Juan’s family come to a head. Finally, we understand why the novel’s title references what Lady Macbeth says to her husband after he has murdered Duncan and she has murdered the guards by his door: “My hands are of your color; but I shame/To wear a heart so white,” meaning that she feels no guilt for her deeds and plans.

Ranz finally confesses that his first’s wife death wasn’t an accident. Rather, he killed her in her sleep, when she turned her back to him and offended him with not seeming to care. He then started the fire to hide his actions.