Javier Marías. Photo by Jerry Bauer. Courtesy of Harcourt Brace.
Complicity through knowledge is at the center of Javier Marías’s award-winning Spanish novel. The protagonist, Juan, is an interpreter for the UN, a trade which relies on the symbiosis of listening and translating—the objective mediation of information. After hours, the symbiosis breaks down, and Juan uses his neurotically over-developed skills in the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge, oh so vexed! Vexed here, because knowledge is bloodstained, inextricable from complicity. Hence, Marías’s continual retreat to the recurring image of Lady Macbeth with bloodied hands: “but I shame to wear a heart so white.”
The consummate eavesdropper, Juan is also an elaborately creative interpreter of the world around him. A scrap of conversation from the next hotel room, a mistaken identity, a friend’s blind date, a dimly remembered nursery rhyme—all material for his investigation, all tortured into significance. Inspired by a post-nuptial identity crisis, the interpreter sets off on a journey back through the tangled branches of his family history. He slowly pieces together the tale of his father’s morally dubious, yet passionate, past; a past that ruthlessly makes conspirators of its participants. From its stunning opening, through its carefully embroidered and inevitable revelation, A Heart So White is rather traditional—refreshingly un-American—in its style and construction. Interpretation is the work of the novelist, and listening is the tragic flaw of this novel’s characters: “Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, for listening means knowing… . ”
A Heart So White, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, was recently published in paperback by Panther/Harvill.