‘A Heart So White’ by Javier Marías (Review)

Last week, I posted on a new-to-me writer, José Saramago, who I decided to try after listening to a podcast, and today is another of my podcast-influenced library choices.  There has been a lot of talk recently about Javier Marías, mainly because his latest book (The Infatuations) is out in English in the UK (August in the US), so I decided to give him a try.  And I’m very glad I did 🙂

A Heart So White (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) was the winner of the 1997 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and it is a great novel.  The main character is Juan, an interpreter and translator who has just got married to his colleague, Luisa.  While you would expect him to be happy,  he has some nagging doubts about the future, mainly because of a conversation at the wedding with his father, Ranz.  Marriage is all well and good, but as Ranz asks, what happens next?

Ranz has good reason to be nervous (or sceptical) about the future.  In the very first scene of the book, we learn how his wife killed herself shortly after the honeymoon, and while he later married her sister, happiness (despite his financial and work success) has proven elusive.  He has always been reticent about the past, preferring to keep silent about his misfortunes, even when Juan asks him directly.  However, some of Ranz’s friends are a little more careless, and after Juan’s wedding, startling details begin to emerge.  It appears that there is more to the suicide than Ranz is telling…

This is not an adequate summary of the plot of A Heart So White, and it never could be.  It’s a book so exquisitely written and cleverly thought out, a wonder to read, but fairly difficult to summarise.  The story is told through Juan’s eyes, and at first the reader struggles to work out where the writer is taking us.  We move around in time, swap continents and learn small details about seemingly unconnected people.  Slowly though, shapes start to appear from the void, connections are made, secrets are uncovered…  It all finally comes together in a memorable chapter.

While A Heart So White is wonderfully plotted, a large part of the attraction lies in the writer’s style.  Marías, like Saramago, uses long sentences with multiple clauses, but his style is very different to that of the Portuguese writer.  His sentences are long and languid, repetitive at times, circling slowly around, and the meaning often only becomes clear a lot later in the novel when they are repeated, usually in a very different context.  There is a confessional nature to Juan’s narrative, and his chains of thoughts, innocuous at first, slowly creep under the reader’s skin.  It took me a while to catch on to his style, but I raced through the second half of the book.

In a sense, it’s a novel about the nature of relationships, and a central theme is the way love is rarely a two-way street, with one partner obliging, compelling the other to love them, or being compelled to do so:

“Any relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions, as well as insults and humiliations… Everyone obliges everyone else.”
p.178 (The Harvill Press, 1997)

It’s an interesting thought, but for an Englishman the most intriguing thing about it is that it first comes from the mouth of a female English politician – surely a thinly-veiled Margaret Thatcher…

Another focus is on secrets, and the importance of keeping them.  Marías, through his creations, constantly stresses that what isn’t told, never happened, and that time levels everything anyway:

“…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…” (p.179)

This sense of the past slipping into oblivion (providing we take good care never to try to uncover it) is what allows Ranz and Juan to peacefully co-exist.  Of course, when Luisa decides that Juan needs to know more about his father’s past, this balance is threatened.

The careful reader, on speeding through A Heart So White, may also pick up on the frequent allusions to Macbeth, and in fact the title of Marías’ novel is a quotation from the play.

“My hands are of your colour; but I shame
To wear a heart so white”
Macbeth, II.2 (Lines 64-5)

Lady Macbeth is talking to her husband after he has ‘done the deed’, and it appears that she is chiding him for his timidness, although Marías, through Juan, also talks about how the white heart refers to Lady Macbeth’s innocence, in as far as she herself did not wield the knife.  Whatever the interpretation, the quotation is inextricably linked with the events of the book – I’ll say no more…

In the end, Marías ties everything together so well.  Echoes and parallels resound and rebound across the years, continents and pages, and the events of decades all serve to bring Juan (and the reader) to one fateful evening.  It is only then that we understand the true meaning behind the words Juan casually utters near the start of the novel:

“I have a tendency to want to understand everything, everything that people say and everything I hear, even at a distance, even if it’s in one of the innumerable languages I don’t know, even if it’s in an indistinguishable murmur or an imperceptible whisper, even if it would be better that I didn’t understand and what’s said is not intended for my ears, or is said precisely so that I won’t hear it.” (p.244)

A Heart So White is a wonderful book in an excellent translation (thanks, once more, are due to the incredibly-talented Jull Costa), and Marías is a writer I’ll be reading a lot more of in future.  I’m a little late to the party, but arriving fashionably late does have its advantages – I’ve got a lot of catching up to do 🙂

14 thoughts on “‘A Heart So White’ by Javier Marías (Review)

  1. Marias is a great writer I love the feeling of vertigo when you discover a new writer. I get genuinely excited when he has a new book out.

    I came to him via Saramago, having read everything by him in translation by Jull Costa. It almost why the word serendipity was coined – discovering new writers by following their translators. Translators as guides: lovely idea.


  2. Sounds marvelous. I haven't read anything by this author but I've been tripping across him name repeatedly lately, and I always take that as a sign that I need to start reading.

    BTW. just bought what must be the DEAL OF THE CENTURY recently: The collected novels of Saramago for the kindle.


  3. Guy – Indeed you must 🙂 The Samarago sounds great (although I'd like to reserve judgement until I hear the price!). Mind you, I think he's very much a paper writer, one to enjoy while rustling the pages…


  4. I wish I'd enjoyed this book even half as much as I enjoyed your post! I recall finding the beginning of the novel incredibly promising and then becoming increasingly disappointed until finishing it was a slog. And now I don't remember anything at all about it. Sigh.

    Great work, as always, Tony. Have I ever mentioned how envious I am of both how quickly you read and how widely you read? 🙂


  5. he seems the master of the slow build up almost like slow cooking ofr fiction ,I ve only read his short stories so far but as you know awaiting a new one and hope to get a reissue soon ,all the best stu


  6. Colleen – After the initial excitement, there were a few chapters where I wasn't sure where the book was going. I just had to trust that he knew where he was heading, and I'm very glad I did 🙂

    Thanks for the kind words – I've been making a conscious effort to expand my literary horizons, especially over the past year or so. My wife would prefer me to spend my time on the garden though 😉


  7. You already read more than almost anyone I know; that's awesome! Do you have any specific plans for expanding your reading horizons, or are you just diving in with an open mind and a survival pack? 🙂


  8. Colleen – Mostly recommendations from blogs or podcasts, but once you take the first step, momentum takes over, and you can find yourself years later with a fair knowledge of a culture's literature and no idea how it got there 😉


  9. Having enjoyed The Infatuations, I’m so glad I bought A Heart So White off the back of your excellent review. I absolutely loved this one, especially the reflections and connections between different strands in the narrative. As you say, the ending brings everything together so well, although it’s a novel so beautifully written I almost didn’t want it to end – I could have stayed with these characters, continued to walk alongside them – but I’m just being greedy here! All in all, it’s such a wonderful book and I think he’s fast becoming one of my favourite writers.
    I've got another couple of Marias’s novels on the bookshelf – All Souls and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me – but I’m going to try to save them as a treat for those long winter months.


  10. Jacqui – This was my first by Marías, and I have to say that it'd be hard to top this one 🙂 Still, when I get a little more time, I'll be trying to find another that compares…


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