“My hands are of your colour;
but I shame to wear a heart so white”
– Shakespeare: Macbeth
This is the quote that gives Corazón tan blanco its title, and references to Shakespeare and, in particular, to Macbeth, abound in throughout the novel.
Corazón tan blanco tells the story of Juan Ranz, an interpreter who has just married Luisa, another interpreter. Since the beginning of their marriage, he has been possessed by a feeling of impending doom, he can’t quite put his finger on it, but it’s deeply connected to a question his father asks him on his wedding day:
“And what now?”
And even though he didn’t want to learn this fact, he realises that his father’s first wife – Juan’s aunt, because his father later married her sister – killed herself shortly after their honeymoon. And, digging even deeper, he finds out that there was a third woman, his father’s actual first wife, a Cuban to whom he was married during a brief stint of living there.
As Juan gets used to his new life as a married man with all this entails – living with Luisa, settling into a routine with her, going on business trips without her – he begins to make inquiries into his father’s and, by extension, his own past.
Corazón tan blanco is full of secondary stories and plots, such as that of a Cuban woman who has an affair with a Spanish man – Juan happens to overhear their conversation in a hotel room during his own honeymoon. This story later becomes intertwined with that of Berta, Juan’s best friend, who writes in to dating agencies and ends up dating someone who might – just might – be the very same Spanish man Juan overheard in that hotel room. The issue of double identities, double – and past – lives, and secrets is one of the main leitmotifs of the novel. According to the introduction in my “Debolsillo” edition, it can even be read as an allegory of the Spanish transition after the Franco period, where things that happened in the past were carefully covered up as the country tried to begin a “new”, democratic existence.
To me, though, the guiding question that stood out the most was “what if?”. Juan spends a lot of time musing what life would be like if… he hadn’t married Luisa, he had confessed his feelings to the girl in the stationary shop as a teenager, if his aunt hadn’t shot herself, and so on. The idea that everything that is real now would be completely different if only a different decision would be taken at one point in time is deeply unsettling to him and causes long diversions in the novel.
To many Germans, especially those – how do I put this nicely – with considerably more reading experience on their backs than my own, Corazón tan blanco rings a bell because Marcel Reich Ranicki raved about it on Das literarische Quartett (a well-known TV show on which he debated literature with three other guys, during which he was known to get very overexcited at times) when it first came out. You can watch the whole episode during which Corazón tan blanco was discussed on Youtube if you want to have some fun (and speak German); the relevant section begins at 24:28:
I didn’t get quite so excited. True, how Marías packs all these different sub-plots, philosophical treatises, and Generally Deep Thoughts into just about 300 pages is worthy of admiration. Also, if you thought above that all these different side-stories have the potential to be extremely confusing, fear not. I had the same fear when he opened up all these different narrative strands, yet he somehow manages to keep them cleanly apart. At the same time, I sometimes found the lengthy, deep discussions to be a bit on the irritating side. They give the novel a slow feel, and to be honest, the whole, “what if everything was different” malarky can get a bit annoying if all you really want to know right now is what the heck happened with Juan’s aunt and the other mysterious Cuban woman before her.
At the same time, this tension is what keeps you going and engaged throughout (it might make you skip some passages if you’re just keen on figuring it out though). No doubt about it, Javier Marías is an extremely skilled storyteller and knows how to rope his reader into the main story. I’ve read one other novel by him, Todas las almas (All Souls, 1988), and found Corazón tan blanco much more mature and complex.
Personally, I especially enjoyed those sections that deal with Juan’s little translator-y tics – like not being able to stop translating in your head, or not being able to “switch off” from a conversation you’re overhearing if it’s in a language you understand. But that’s just a side note based on my own language-geekiness. Overall, I liked Corazón tan blanco, but I’m not going to put it up there with the Really Amazing Novels I could read again and again, or the unputdownables you just have to read in one sitting.
English title: A Heart so White
German title: Mein Herz so weiß