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Javier Marías: Corazón tan blanco (A Heart So White)

This is the book that really made Marías’ reputation and deservedly so. It is a story very well told as well as being one of those books that grabs you because of the fine writing, regardless of the plot. The title comes from MacbethMy hands are of your colour; but I shame, To wear a heart so white. Other Macbeth quotations will appear in the book and the references are relevant to the story.

The main plot line concerns Ranz and his wives. The book starts with a recently married woman, Teresa, having dinner at home with her family (though her mother and husband are absent). She gets up from the dinner table, goes to the bathroom, takes up a gun and kills herself. Why? No-one seems to know. Her husband, Ranz, later marries her sister, Juana, and they have a son, Juan (though we only discover his name later in the book), who is the narrator. He has been led to believe a) that his aunt’s death was by illness and b) that she was his father’s first wife. Both suppositions are, as he will discover (but not from his father), erroneous. If the story were merely about how Juan discovered the truth about his aunt and his father, this would still be a good novel, but Marías’ skill is to make connections with other relationships, including his own and, of course, including Macbeth’s.

Juan is an interpreter and occasional translator for international organizations, primarily the United Nations, but also for others, as needed. His wife, Luisa, is also an interpreter and they meet when she is supposed to supervise him when he is interpreting between a top female British politician (Thatcher?) and her Spanish counterpart. They have nothing to say to one another, so exchange banal civilities. To liven things up, Juan completely misinterprets what they are saying, expecting that Luisa might intervene, but she does not. The result is that the two have a more interesting conversation (with, of course, a reference to Macbeth) without Luisa’s intervention. Juan and Luisa later marry and we soon meet them on their honeymoon, where we first see marital discord from afar. While honeymooning in Havana, they overhear the couple in the next room – a Spaniard (Guillermo) with his Cuban mistress (Miriam). He has a wife back home in Spain but she is very ill. The Cuban mistress urges him to kill her and he maintains that, slowly, he is doing just that. We never find out what happens but that scene sets the tone.

The other key event concerns Berta, another interpreter who lives in New York and works for the United Nations and it is in her flat that Juan stays when he does his eight week stint at the United Nations General Assembly. Berta is twice divorced. She was also injured in a car crash, that has left her with a limp and small scar on her face. She is lonely and has joined a videodating service, which has given her some sex but little else. While Juan is staying with her, she shows him the video of a man who conceals his face and but maintains that he is well-known. He also changes his name between videos. Though he speaks in English – Berta has mentioned in the details that she submitted to the videodating company that she is Spanish – he is clearly Spanish, as the two interpreters can readily tell from his accent. Juan suspects that he might be Guillermo from Havana. The man (one of whose names is Bill) insists on seeing a video of Berta nude before he proceeds any further and how this plays out and the subsequent date are also key to the man-woman theme of this novel.

Marías is such a fine writer that his discursions and comments, particularly on his own marriage, but also on his father and his activities (he is an art expert who, in the view of his son, has clearly not always behaved legally and honestly with his various clients) and the interpretation business, only enhance the novel rather than distract from it. The key plot, Ranz’s story, which does, eventually, come out, is superbly developed and told. One of the top post-war Spanish novels.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1992 by Anagrama
First published in English 1995 by Harvill
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa