Not having been at the computer much these past few weeks, I have failed to take advantage of the full glory of Spanish Lit Month and all the wonderful posts thereon around the internet. (It is hosted by Richard and Stu, who have kept a list of participants.) And despite starting A Heart So White in good time I am, as is my wont, squeaking my post in on the very last day of SLM. This intricate and subtle novel is not one to rush, and Javier Marías has now become my new favourite author.
That’s the unfortunate thing about what happens to us and remains unrecorded, or worse still, unknown or unseen or unheard, for later, there’s no way it can be recovered. The day we didn’t spend together we will never have spent together, what someone was going to say to us over the phone when they called and we didn’t answer will never be said, at least not exactly the same thing said in exactly the same spirit; and everything will be slightly different or even completely different because of that lack of courage which dissuades us from talking to you. But even if we were together that day or at home when that person phoned [...], even then, none of that will ever be repeated and consequently a time will come when having been together will be the same as not having been together, and having picked up the phone the same as not having done so [...] Sometimes I have the feeling that nothing that happens happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered [...] 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 those identical things and make of our story a unique story that we can remember and that can be told.
Upon her return from her honeymoon Teresa Aguilera attends a dinner party at her parents’ house; leaving the table, she goes to the bathroom, takes out her father’s gun and shoots herself. Forty years later and Juan and Luisa are honeymooning in Cuba; Luisa is ill in bed and Juan, standing on the hotel balcony, is mistaken by a woman for her lover, who is in the next room. Juan is the son of Teresa’s widower, Ranz, who remarried. Ranz’s new wife: Teresa’s sister (also now dead). But nobody has ever really spoken of this to Juan nor has he thought to learn more until Ranz utters two words at Juan’s wedding reception – ‘Now what?’
On one level this is a puzzle: why did Teresa commit suicide? Read attentively, and you will probably be able to guess the secret (I write ‘probably’ because I didn’t really, but when one reaches the end and looks back it seems so obvious.) The novel is Juan’s account of the first few months of his marriage. The scene in which he relates (much of) the truth of Teresa’s death is peppered with parenthetical quotes from the rest of the novel, echoes of earlier events and analyses and thoughts. (It is so difficult to write about this without spoiling the plot, because that scene of revelation is so crucial to the understanding of it all.) Yet while this revelation forms the climax of the novel, it is far from its driving force and indeed disappears from view quite often. Juan’s sentences are long and ruminative, he goes spiralling away from the narrative to consider whether there’s a difference between acting and knowing about an act, how secrets begin and grow, why interpreters hate translators and simultaneous translators hate consecutive translators.
The novel is highly patterned, returning again and again to triangular relationships, a person standing outside a room in which there is a couple, a foreign man seeking extra-marital sex, recording versus remembering, a woman humming a song to herself... It is as if Juan is trying things out from different angles. He is uneasy about being married, his relationship with his father is uncomfortable. Thus the patterns relate to him and his circumstances as much as they provide ‘clues’ as to what happened to Teresa. His text as a whole is tinged with anxiety and menace. Juan is highly conscious of women’s vulnerability to men, specifically their lovers. His story begins and ends with imagined acts of violence on women’s bodies, the first of which, Teresa’s suicide, has occurred but of course was not witnessed by Juan; the second is purely imaginary but suggestive and disturbing. References to Bluebeard, Macbeth and a sinister little song about a bride whose groom turns into a giant serpent and devours her on their wedding night maintain the disquiet. Actually the whole text is serpentine, winding around and around the central question, refusing to accept what is already known.
One of the repeated motifs is of finding there’s no milk in the fridge and needing to buy some more. Each time I encountered it, I wondered about it. Of course, just before the dénouement, Juan observes there is no milk in the fridge and he should buy some more. And I wondered... Did these highly patterned events chronicled in the novel actually occur at all? Or did Juan discover the family secret and then, in trying to write his account, disperse all its elements – including the unimportant ones, like the milk – in stories which reflect truths about his recent and current emotional states and truths about his father?
For Juan is caught between wanting to know and not wanting to know; feeling the past is important and feeling it’s irrelevant. He insists on the unreliability of memory, the impossibility of communicating anything accurately, the lies people tell and their failure to comprehend their own motives anyway. He even points out that he can’t possibly be remembering with much accuracy the conversations he records in his book. He and Luisa are translators, Ranz is an art expert and dealer, their friend Custardoy paints copies and forges Old Masters. All of these characters are in the business of transmitting the messages – be they words or images – of others. None of them can make the transmission without in some way interpolating something of themselves and altering the nuances of the message. So in the end, this novel is, like each of the stories within it, only a partial and distorted truth based on untrustworthy evidence . (But a very satisfying, enjoyable and beautifully written partial and distorted truth!)
(Photograph of Javier Marías from 3:AM Magazine, August 2012, here)