A few days ago I was at a beautiful reading by the Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco. In the question period afterward, a woman asked what he hoped readers would get from his poetry. Blanco replied—I’m paraphrasing here—that he wanted his poems to function like mirrors, to act as objects that readers could hold up and see themselves reflected in. Perhaps this seems an odd way to introduce
The Heart Tastes Bitter, a gripping work of noir by Víctor del Árbol, a Catalan ex-police officer with two prior, award-winning novels. And yet one of the numerous things that first drew me to this novel was precisely its mirror-like effect: the tale of a train wreck of a man with whom I have nothing in common led to shocking insights about life—real life—in general and the society we all live in.
The plot revolves around Eduardo Quintana, a once-successful painter whose life was ripped apart when his wife and daughter were killed in a hit-and-run that left him with nothing but a scarred knee and a broken heart. Still wallowing in sorrow thirteen years later, sinking ever deeper into despair and alcoholism, the man is on a collision course with the world, reliving the accident day after day. He detests his therapist, is rude to his only friend and rebuffs anyone who tries to get close. Then he receives a commission to do a portrait of the man who killed someone else’s child in a drunken hit-and-run. And as Eduardo begins his first brushstrokes, the novel too begins to paint the pictures of a vast array of characters, from the clearly unseemly to the superficially virtuous: ruthless business tycoons and ex-Pinochet mercenaries, aloof film directors and Algerian bodyguards, maimed ex-ballerinas and young immigrant prostitutes.
Like all good noir, The Heart Tastes Bitter does an exemplary job of showing us that there really are no such things as good guys. But it more than this, too, showing that each of the bad guys has a pretty damn good reason for being bad, having lived through one form of horror or another. And as the narrator notes, “Mutilated children grow into incomplete men, incapable of truly feeling anything, experiencing only counterfeit love, passion, and joy. They find fleeting moments of happiness which are always hanging by a thread, lest a nightmare…or a memory suddenly pop into their heads and reopen the wound….”
As the plot thickens, we’re drawn deeper into a complex web involving child prostitution, snuff films and Algerian pied noirs, each with convincing backstory and nuanced detail, yielding a rich and satisfying read; simultaneously, we see the fictions that each character maintains in order to cope, to survive, to make it through the day. Tension mounts as stories converge and we glimpse more and more of the seedy underbelly of 21st-century Madrid. It all culminates in a series of horrific realizations that shed light—and darkness—on each devastating subplot. The Heart Tastes Bitter shows both the baseness of humanity and the inevitably tragic actions of people unspeakably damaged through no fault of their own.
And del Árbol does a brilliant job of providing us with a mirror that exposes the lies we all tell ourselves in order to get by.
The Heart Tastes Bitter is available now from Scribe.