Macbeth murders sleep…
says the narrator at one point in the much hailed Spanish novelist Javier Marias’ highest profile work to date; his 1992 novel Heart So White.
I read Macbeth (unbelievably) for the first time last spring and had highlighted: “My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white” from Lady Macbeth’s response to Macbeth when he told her “the deed is done” (meaning Macbeth tells his wife he has murdered Duncan). With that said, one does not have to have read Macbeth to enjoy this novel. After finishing this, I had learned more about the layers of interpretations of the play than any of my rereading ever could.
The 40something newly married narrator Juan, is a government Interpreter slash Translator, and he, we are told has a ‘tendency to want to understand everything that people say, and everything that I hear, even at a distance’. From this vocation, Juan has privileged his premise that even everyday conversation, human dialogue is often a ‘matter of life and death’ in its influence in the course of human events:
Its strange that words don’t have worse consequences than they do. Or perhaps we just don’t see it, we just don’t think they have any consequences and, in fact, the world’s in a permanent state of disaster because of the things we’ve said.
Soon after his honeymoon, Juan has decided that his imagined future together with Luissa his wife is a ‘concrete’ one, its trajectory is predictable. But he also has ‘presentiments of disaster’ and the discovery of the sources of these forebodings provide the impetus for his attempt make sense, to discover the reality of the chronicle of his enigmatic father, Ranz’s previous marriages and their dark secrets they have hidden.
In the course of his reflection he forms ‘hypothesis and conjectures’ of connectedness between past events of Ranzs’ marriages and his own current marriage and their influence on an imagined future. The strands, or threads of the fabric, are formed by two parallel stories of his father and his first wife Theresa; along with his own relationship with his wife Luissa. They form a weave with two counter-posed stories of couples: first the purely conjectured relationship fabricated from an overheard conversation in a neighboring hotel room in Havana, the ‘story’ of Miriam and Guillermo. Second the attempts at relationships of his friend Berta and her noir lover Bill.
Marais’ narrative is much like a weaving loom whose shuttle and arms are formed by: ‘listening’ which is primary Interpretation, and Translation: which is less direct, and more subject to distortion, recounting of the personal events, the stories, which may be self serving lies or part truths, pictures of the past. Just as in the plays of Shakespeare, in Heart So White much of what characters, and narrator, learn about each other, plot events or even of themselves is through casual overhearing and eavesdropping. Another device of the narrative-loom is repetition of ideas, framing spoken sentences remembered, which Marias uses here much like in the poetic form of the villanelle. This loom creates:
“a vast piece of cloth with no stitching, no ornament, no folds, like invisible, reddish sky with no angles to limit it, then differentiated, and mobile hole in which one cannot see the we and there is only repetition, but not the repetition that occurs after some time has passed, which is not only tolerable but pleasant, not only tolerable but necessary a continuous, uninterrupted repetition, a constant leveling out of what is happening.”
Then there are four lines from Macbeth centered on Lady Macbeth’s role in Macbeth’s murder of Duncan that are repeated as in stanzas of a villanelle . They are used to frame inferences in the narrative, each probing specific themes: “a heart so white”: complicity/implication, “brainsickly” thinking: secrets/culpability, “the dead are like pictures”: ‘negation of the retold’ and last, “Macbeth murders sleep”: the willful ignorance of the past’s affect on the future. They echo and reverberate within Juan’s story, and are a prism that Juan the narrator uses to explore and attribute meaning to events in his and his father’s relationships with women, as well as the mirrored stories of the other couples that form the narrative.
Since ‘listening is the most dangerous thing’ because it obliges the listener, in the warp and weave of the loom, Juan obliges us, the reader by weaving his story of how he comes to an understanding of the ‘reality’ behind the events of the opening scene. Once the story is started, and just as “one word must follow the other”, consequences, implications follow, one after the other. But mere gathering of evidence will not suffice, this is the equivalent of translating the ‘reality’ of the past, by extension, its affects on the future. This is not reliable as memories and there retelling are seen as a negation:
“Recounting an event distorts it, recounting facts distorts and twists and almost negates them, everything that one recounts, however true, becomes unreal and approximate, the truth doesn’t depend on things actually existing or happening, but on the remaining hidden or unknown or untold and what is called reality or even real life they become part of some and knowledge your symbolism, and are no longer facts, instead they become mere recognition”
This novel is as tightly bound together as any poem. It is wonderfully intricate without being complex or complicated, if that makes any sense.
Ignorance of the consequences of what we say, of letting only ‘translations’, memories form the fabric of the narratives of our lives, is the equivalent of sleep. Juan is in this sense, as much a ‘murderer of sleep’ as Macbeth, and he either abides or not, that is the question…