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Text me when you’re done: A Heart So White

Sophie Mackintosh

April 30th, 2024

Sophie Mackintosh considers the powerplay of a favorite novel.

What if I was to tell you that one of the sexiest scenes in literature features a thinly-disguised Margaret Thatcher? Okay, well, I wouldn’t have believed you either. But in Javier Marías’s masterpiece, the novel A Heart So White, the dynamics between two interpreters, and a wilfully mistranslated conversation, becomes a masterclass in suspense, vulnerability, and power. The novel itself is one made up not of scenes so much as incredibly intimate set-pieces, seemingly disparate, but which fall into place by the end like pieces of a puzzle. Things are observed and described in precise detail, and yet also overheard, misinterpreted, ruminated upon. But in a novel of such set-pieces, it is this one that stands out to me.

 The set-up is that our narrator, Juan, is one of two interpreters coordinating a diplomatic conversation between the Spanish premier and his UK counterpart (the thinly-disguised Margaret Thatcher). Luisa, whom Juan has never met before, is the other interpreter present, and her role is not to engage in the conversation but to supervise Juan’s translation, ensuring accuracy. All Juan can see of Luisa are her legs, her feet in Prada shoes—the specificity of “Prada shoes” is important. It should be, presumably, a fairly staid conversation, just another day at work. However, soon it takes an unexpected turn when an innocent offer of tea leads very quickly, in Juan’s mouth, to the Spanish Premier asking the English Prime Minister, “Tell me, do the people in your country love you?”

What is Juan trying to do here? Juan himself barely seems to know his intentions, and yet once he has begun he commits to this new direction. More urgently, how will Luisa react? As the supervisor of the conversation she should shut it down; Juan waits for her to “intervene and denounce me, to correct or reprimand me…to take over from me at once, that’s what she was there for.” It’s not a conversation in which she is expected to participate or translate herself, but it’s a sensitive conversation between officials that she is expected to keep on track, arguably possessing more responsibility than Juan himself. Instead, she allows the exchange to be steered toward the relationships between power, love, and dictatorship, without intervening, even when Juan (as the premier) asks, “Have you, in your own experience of love, ever obliged anyone to love you?” 

Juan can sense Luisa’s surprise at the question only in the uncrossing of her“startled legs,” the back of his neck “pierced by her sense of shock.” However she says nothing, does not correct his mistranslations. Luisa will go on to marry Juan; this is their first interaction.

Those aforementioned startled legs, Juan’s only clue as to what Luisa is feeling, are returned to, again and again, in a way that gradually becomes both lustful and forensic. The Prada shoes, too, become a focus, as Juan meditates on what they might mean about her. Were they a gift, he wonders to himself, or does she just know “how to spend her money”; how do the shoes, the “long legs” and “golden knees” attached to the feet wearing them, fit in with this developing picture of her, the one that he is building in his mind through her complicity in allowing his misinterpretation of the conversation to take place?

The shoes themselves aren’t even described in detail, beyond being Prada high heels. But I confess that since reading this scene I’ve searched many times online for the perfect pair of secondhand Prada shoes, projecting my own desires onto them. I imagine shoes I could tap on the ground or swing under my chair, shoes to adorn the ends of my own legs, shoes to seduce someone with, intentionally or not. They’re not described but they are returned to, the focus always circling back. When you can’t see the entirety of something or someone, you fill in the gaps based on the information you have. The disembodiment of these visible pieces of Luisa is only enhanced when she crosses her legs, straightens them, reveals her surprise, reveals everything through her movements. These small gestures that would otherwise go unnoticed are recorded in the tiniest of detail, because when we are desirous we notice everything, we are alive to everything, to every clue available to us.

There’s seductiveness in the acquiescence of Luisa’s actions. Why does she allow this to happen, rather than stopping it? She does not know Juan. Perhaps she’s curious, or perhaps she does not want to get him into trouble, or perhaps she recognises that beyond a certain point her own complicity becomes problematic, too, and by then it’s too late—she’s in it. There’s eroticism to this ambiguity, the shared sense of game, and in Luisa’s implicit, incipient trust in Juan. She holds the power, ultimately. But she chooses not to stop him.

There’s eroticism, too, in the strange, playful mystery of just why Juan decides to mistranslate this conversation between two high-ranking officials in the first place. As in so much of desire’s impulses and risk-takings, it doesn’t make rational sense. We allow our impulses to drive us, our intuition. He might be trying to shock, or he might be bored, or maybe he senses a kindred spirit in Luisa in that way that we can somehow sense in someone we’ve only just met—a bodily pull that resides somewhere beyond our understanding. Electrical and atmospheric, a hunch wanting to be proven right. Because when it comes down to it, is desire and, beyond this, love, not a system of allowances, of complicity? If she will allow him this little game, what else might she allow him?