My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white

William Shakespeare – Machbet

Lady Macbeth never got her hands dirty. But when she sees her husband drenched in king Duncan’s blood, she knows she’s guilty too. Her words, “I shame to wear a heart so white”, are a milestone of contemporary literature, to the point that Javier Marías, multiple award-winning Spanish writer, translator, built a whole book around them.

A heart so white is Marías seventh novel. It’s a story about innocence and guilt. Yet, most of all, it is a deconstruction of those apparently simple concepts, inviting readers to question their definitions of purity.

All colors in one

Originally published in Spain in 1992 and winner of the InternationalIMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997, A Heart So White tells the story of Juan, a Spanish interpreter who tries to untangle the mysterious past of his father.

Secrets are the beating heart of the story. Madrid and New York, the cities where the novel unfolds, are as hazy as the characters who populate them. In this misty landscape, Juan investigates human nature through the lives of his loved ones. His wife Luisa, with whom he shares his whole existence, becomes more and more a stranger. But the greatest secret is the one that carves his father Ranz from the inside. He lost two wives. And there are many mysteries about both of them.

This search is only the frame for a more in-depth questioning. Juan keeps on obsessing about what’s true, what’s not, and what he’s willing to accept. Yet, as an interpreter, he is well aware that truth is always mediated: it becomes real through words, and words are often approximate. Even the tiniest grammar choice is able to change the entire meaning of a full-stop. Thus, as soon as told, reality becomes inaccurate. And its shades get lost in the color that contains them all: white.

White as symbol of ambiguity

In popular western culture, white is commonly associated with purity, but literature teaches readers another lesson, and often this color becomes synonymous with horror. White is the color of the killer whale in Moby Dick. White is the color of blindness in Saramago’s most famous work. And white is the noise representing death in Don Delillo‘s White noise.

In Marias’ novel white embodies ambiguity. The characters live their lives as if their hearts were white, but it’s not the case.

In this scenario, hover the uncountable analogies with the poetry of Shakespeare. Rand is Lady Macbeth and her husband at the same time. He is as desperate as her, but while he is convinced to wear “a heart so white”, his hands are hopelessly tainted with blood. However, such as in Shakespeare’s works, there’s not just drama in A Heart So White. Disastrous moments alternate with comic situations that destabilize the reader, keeping them in limbo.

This basic ambiguity pervades language itself. Marías’ writing is made of long and articulated passages, of brackets inside other brackets, which enables him to express with words the characters’ constant living among doubts. Even when readers feel they are finally getting at the core of things, the author reveals there’s still something beyond. Still another surface to break: language.

An infinite forge of ideas

Marías is not the first to shape a plot finding inspiration in literature itself. In postmodern literature, the presence of hidden quotes and subtexts is quite frequent. William Faulkner, for example, doesn’t make a mystery of his love for the Bard. The Sound and the Fury, one of his masterpieces along with As I Lay Dying, also takes its title from Macbeth. The themes that Shakespeare staged, his constant questioning reality, pierce time and space. Such as his sharpness in expressing even the most recondite human emotion. This is why the importance of the British Tragedian for Marías is not limited to A Heart so White, but filters in other novels. Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me, takes inspiration from Richard III. This feeling of Shakespearean incertitude and inability to communicate pervades all of Marías’ works. Consistently with this choice, but above all with his source of inspiration, the author isn’t looking for answers. He doesn’t even try. He puts characters and readers in front of this nebulous patina of quandary.