(New Directions)Juan works as a translator. Luisa works in the same field --- in fact, that is how they met and, ultimately, married. It was at a high-level meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Juan Carlos of Spain where they were alone with the two leaders.
But in the world of Marķas, nothing is simple. We say "translating," and we see these two heads of state with two other people who have the requisite facility in languages they don't know. What happens if the translators fudge, or change a few ideas? What happens if the words that go back and forth is fantasy, made up by the translators? Who is there to guard the guardians of words --- another translator? And who will watch that second operative --- another?
Perhaps it comes down to the whole question of listening,
Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out about something and knowing what's going on, our ears don't have lids that can instinctively close against words uttered, they can't hide from what they sense they are about to hear, it's always too late.
If I was doing an essay, for a class in English, I could here say that A Heart So White is about listening, and talking, and words, and translating those words; how words get translated by all of us, into something else, something else that, perhaps, we didn't mean. But that would be like saying that Ulysses is about living in Dublin in the early part of the century, or that Remembrance of Things Past is about memory, or that Henry James writes about money and position and power and sexual restraint. These sophomore essay statements are true, but when we write them, we are forced to abandon the richness of what they represent. So it is for your present translator...this reviewer. A Heart So White is too rich, rich like a madeline; so rich that we wanted, after the first few pages, as reviewer, and as reader --- just to give up on it. So much sophistry, so many words, to describe what may (or may not be) going on, for Marķas is a Proust, a Joyce, a Henry James of the late 20th Century. Writing so rich that it damn near drowns one.
Word-lies (how one uses words in order to lie) is one of ten or twelve themes that swamp A Heart So White. The passage quoted below is a long one, but it will gives you a fair sense of what Marķas is all about. Lady Macbeth is telling Macbeth that, even though he has just murdered Duncan, it isn't really murder. As she does so, she is herself wishing that she weren't so cowardly, and, at the same time, (using her words --- it's a play, remember, with Shakespeare's infinite plays on words) she lies about her involvement in the murder:
"My hands are of your color," she says to Macbeth, "but I shame to wear a heart so white," as if she wished to infect him with her own nonchalance in exchange for infecting herself with the blood shed by Duncan, unless "white" here means "pale and fearful" or "cowardly." She knows, she knows what happened, and therein lies her guilt, but she was still not the person who committed the crime, however much she may regret it or claim to regret it; staining her hands with the blood of the dead man is a game, a pretense, a false alliance that she makes with the person who did the killing, because you cannot kill someone twice, and the deed is done; "I have done the deed" and there is never any doubt about who that "I' is: even if Lady Macbeth had plunged the knife again into the chest of the murdered Duncan, not even then would she have killed him or contributed to his murder, it was already done. "A little water clears us of this deed," she says to Macbeth, knowing that for her it's true, literally true. She likens herself to him, thus trying to liken him to her, to her heart so white: it's not so much that she shares his guilt at that moment as that she tries to make him share her irremediable innocence, her cowardice. An instigation is nothing but words, translatable, ownerless words that are passed from voice to voice and from language to language and from century to century, always the same, provoking people again and again to the same act for as long as there have been people and languages and ears in the world to hear them. The same actions that no one is even sure they want to see carried out, the actions that are always involuntary, no longer dependent on words once they've been carried out, rather they sweep them away and remain cut off from any "before" or "after," isolated and irreversible, whilst words can be reiterated and retracted, repeated and rectified, words can be denied and we can deny that we said them, words can be twisted and forgotten. One is guilty only of having heard them, which is unavoidable, and although the law doesn't exonerate the person who spoke, the person who speaks, that person knows that, in fact, he's done nothing, even if he did oblige the other person with his tongue at their ear, his chest pressed against their back, his troubled breathing, his hand on their shoulder, with his incomprehensible but persuasive whisper.
Whew. And wow. A graduate student's dream, right? Words twisting, moving about, making a statement (about words!) --- then falling back, sometimes contradicting, sometimes enlarging the thoughts, with a surfeit of words, so that at times you are wondering if Marķas is just afflicted with prolixity, going on and on just to go on and on. But it's not just words about words. As one gets further and further into his head, one gets caught not only in the coil of the words, and the ideas might (or might not) represent, so that finally, and at one point (for me it was the passage above) --- comes the realization that this guy is not just some noodler, he's on to something. Whatever it may be.
And it's not just words. There's the matter of a dynamite story, a detective story, in a sense. Then there are his characters: the narrator, Juan (we learn his name, finally, on page 239); Berta, his ex-lover, living in New York, lonely, sending sex-videos to men, hoping one will take up with her; Juan's father Ranz, art expert, who has a secret (a deadly secret, around which all these words are to whirl --- that's what makes it a detective story); passive Luisa, who marries Juan, the one who participated in his riotous translation session with the King and the Prime Minister --- she opting not to give him away at the crucial moment, when Juan "betrays" the King, with Thatcher, as follows:
"But naturally if we do something well nobody organizes a demonstration to show us how pleased they are."
I decided on the contrary to lead him into more personal territory, which seemed to me less dangerous and also more interesting, and I made him say in crystal-clear English:
"If you don't mind my asking and you don't think I'm being too personal, have you, in your own experience of love, ever obliged anyone to love you?"
Delicious. A translator, interjecting his own words, asking that tough Margaret Thatcher about love.
§ § §
There are, kicking around in this particular wonderful football field, a dozen or so themes. There's Macbeth, and sleep --- murdered sleep. There is seeing (the book ends with the phrase, "So now you see." And, we presume, Juan does see what his father is all about.)
There are the many alternatives --- maybe something happened, maybe a word was spoken; but, then again, it's all translation, so maybe it didn't. And secrets. What secrets does Luisa keep from Juan? "I don't know, if I did, they wouldn't be secrets."
Grief? Talk about grief, which may be fear: "No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear." Relationships: "Every relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions, as well as insults and humiliations." The truth (or non-truth) of events --- which, at least to this reader, is the best summary of the reason, the thought, the raison d'etat of the author's heart, a heart so white. I give it to you here, without comment, more than to say, if we were to try to do something so foolish as to summarize this outlandish, all-over-the-place, stunning, idea-crammed, go to the depths, unstoppable novel, this (if we were to be so foolish) would be what we would call the essence, if such is possible, of A Heart So White:
What happened between us both happened and didn't happen, it's the same with everything, why do or not do something, why say "yes" or "no," why worry yourself with a "perhaps" or a "maybe," why speak, why remain silent, why refuse, why know anything if nothing of what 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; we pour all our intelligence and out feelings and our enthusiasm into the task of discriminating between things that will all be made equal, if they haven't already been, and that's why we're so full of regrets and lost opportunities, of confirmations and reaffirmations and opportunities grasped, when the truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost. Or perhaps there never was anything.
Or perhaps there never was anything! Ha!
The translation, by the way, is by Margaret Jull Costa, and she's dynamite.--- Carlos Amantea