This novel starts with a dramatic event: a young woman, newly wed and just returned from her honeymoon, takes her father’s gun to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. The scene of carnage in the bathroom and the petrified horror of her family who have rushed to the scene is described in dispassionate detail. The event is then laid to one side. We fast forward thirty odd years to the narrator’s story- the dead woman was his aunt Teresa, briefly married to his father, who then married her sister, the narrator’s mother, some time after the suicide. The narrator’ s story starts with his marriage to Luisa and during the wedding reception, his father, Ranz, advises his son not to disclose all his secrets to his new bride. As readers privy to the drama of the first scene, our curiosity is roused: the narrator, who is ignorant at this point of the circumstances of his aunt’s death, is less curious. It is later, when his wife, Luisa, becomes aware of these events, and wants to get to the bottom of them, that the past begins to open up.
Now I’ve summarised events at the start of the novel as if this is a plot driven novel and easy to follow. It is neither of these things. The novel is an intense first person narrative and the narrator, Juan, not only recounts the events of the novel and recalls the past, but ruminates constantly in long looping sentences on the impossibility of remembering the past and on knowing what is happening in the present. The act of listening features prominently. He is an interpreter by profession, but the narrative often has him listening to other people in adjacent rooms, wondering, but not of course knowing for sure, whether they are doing this or perhaps that. And the reader can easily lose her way following the digressive speculation- I often had to read things twice to get back to the point.
The same aura of uncertainty, of not knowing, surrounds character and defines relationships. The narrator thinks it not surprising that he doesn’t know things from his father’s past- after all , children are rarely interested in their parents’ lives before they were born. But what about romantic and sexual relationships? A very unsettling central section of the book deals with the attempts of the narrator’s single female friend, Berta, to find a partner, involving receiving and making highly personal videos as a prelude to meeting for a date. She receives a video from ‘Bill’ who addresses her in sexually explicit terms, yet doesn’t show his face-the anonymity of pornography. And even though Juan’s marriage to Luisa seems stable and loving ( we are told little about it) he feels a hint of suspicion that she may have been seeing family friend Custardoy during his absence in New York. You never know.
The uncertainty goes one step further at times to destabilise the notion of identity itself. Miriam in Havana mistakes the narrator for her lover Guillermo but the narrator later wonders if Berta’s one night stand, Bill, could be that same Spaniard, Guillermo; Ranz marries both sisters as if they were interchangeable; the love triangle between Miriam, Guillermo and his wife is mirrored later on in the book. Several points in the narrative see one character hanging round in the street, waiting to be let back in to the apartment. Sometimes while reading I had to go back to check I had the right character. So the novel is as much about uncertainty, about not knowing as about the events constituting the plot.
This kind of repetition of events in the narrative is mirrored in the repetition of language and ideas: obliging and persuading a partner to love you, persuading another to act, hovering at their shoulder, at their back, backing them up and putting your hand on their shoulder. And that ear- the interpreter’s ever vigilant ear, finely tuned to dialect and nuance, the ear of those close to us, to which we whisper words of persuasion and love, which we kiss with the tip of our tongue. I loved the way the narrative came back to these ideas and images, for me they seemed anchoring while uncertainty lay over other aspects of the novel like the cloud of unknowing.
And of course the repetition includes the title and other quotations from Macbeth, taken from the scene where Macbeth returns, having murdered Duncan and his family. Lady Macbeth deals with his remorse by calling him ‘brainsickly’, accusing him of having a ‘heart so white’- does she mean cowardly, weak, certainly bloodless? And who in this book possesses the ‘heart so white’ of the title?
This all sounds as if this novel is hard work. Well it is. I advise reading it in a slightly chilly room, first thing in the morning with your wits about you and not on your garden bench nodding off on a summer’s afternoon as I did on my first attempt. The second, more recent, reading proved much more rewarding: I could appreciate Javier Marias’ reach, enjoy the associations and digressions and marvel at the skill of his storytelling. Still there are aspects of the novel which I feel are floating just above my head, just beyond my grasp, can’t quite pin them down…..