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A Heart So White by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I often reread a favourite book during the dark days of winter. It’s usually something like The Great Gatsby, but this year I chose A Heart So White by Javier Marías (first published in Spanish in 1992) with a view to writing about it here.

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A Heart So White is narrated by Juan, a translator and interpreter living in Madrid with his new wife, Luisa, also a translator/interpreter. The novel has one of the most intriguing openings I can recall from my recent reading. Here’s how it begins:

I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn’t a girl anymore and hadn’t long been back from her honeymoon, went into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and aimed her own father’s gun at her heart, her father at the time was in the dining room with other members of the family and three guests. (pg. 3)

Juan is talking about the death of his father’s wife, Teresa, shortly after the couple’s honeymoon some forty years ago. Juan’s father, Ranz, was not present at the moment of Teresa’s death, and at the time, no one appeared to know why she took her own life. Following his wife’s suicide, Ranz married Teresa’s sister, Juana (Juan’s mother).

At this point in the novel, we don’t know exactly when or how Juan learned of the circumstances surrounding Teresa’s death, and this hints at one of the book’s main themes: our desire to keep secrets from those closest to us.

This theme is developed as Juan reflects on his own wedding day. (The timeline moves backwards and forwards over the course of the novel but many of the scenes are set within the first year of Juan and Luisa’s marriage.) Juan has never had a particularly close relationship with his father, and when Ranz calls him to one side after the ceremony to offer a little advice, the conversation turns to secrets:

“…The world is full of surprises and of secrets. We think we know the people close to us, but time brings with it more things that we don’t know than things we do, comparatively speaking we know less all the time, there’s always a greater area of shadow. Even if the illuminated area grows larger too, the shadows still win…” (pg. 84)

At first Juan wonders if his father has discovered something terrible about Luisa only to reveal it after the wedding, but this does not appear to be the case. If anything Ranz appears helpless and a little fearful. Once Ranz recovers his composure, he leaves his son with the following advice but fails to offer any explanation for this enigmatic statement:

“I’ll just say one thing,” he said. “If you ever do have any secrets or if you already have, don’t tell her.” And smiling again, he added: “Good luck.” (pg. 89)

When Juan and Luisa return from their honeymoon, a family ‘friend’ lets slip that Teresa took her own life all those years ago. This revelation raises questions about Ranz’s relationship with Teresa, but when Juan asks his father about his past, he chooses to remain silent. Ultimately, it falls to Luisa to encourage Juan’s father to talk.

By the end of the novel the uncertainties surrounding Teresa’s suicide are resolved, but as with The Infatuations (Marías’s most recent book), A Heart So White offers so much more than a conventional mystery. It seems (at least in part) to be a meditation on some of Marias’s favourite themes: truth, secrets, relationships, communication and death.

During the course of Heart, Marías touches on the nature of marriage, whether it signals the end of an abstract future and a curtailment of choice. Despite his love for Luisa, Juan is troubled by feelings of doubt both during and after the honeymoon. There is a sense that Juan initially sees marriage to Luisa as an ending as opposed to the beginning of a new phase. It is entirely possible that he is experiencing some kind of existential crisis, a deep feeling of unease precipitated by his conversation with Ranz at the wedding ceremony:

I realized that I found it very difficult to think about her and utterly impossible to think about the future, which is one of the greatest conceivable pleasures known to anyone, if not the daily salvation of us all; to allow oneself to think vague thoughts, to let one’s thoughts drift over what will or might happen, to wonder without too much exactitude or intensity what will become of us tomorrow or in five years’ time, to wonder about things we cannot foresee. On my honeymoon it was if the future had disappeared and there was no abstract future at all, which is the only future that matters because the present can neither taint nor assimilate it. (pgs. 11-12)

Another of Marías’s themes concerns itself with how relationships lead to obligations and coercions, how these feelings may influence our actions. These ideas prove central to the mysteries surrounding Teresa’s death (as do the novel’s title and epigraph which come from Shakespeare’s Macbeth):

“Everyone obliges everyone else, not so much to do something they don’t want to do, but rather to do something they’re not sure they want to do, because hardly anyone knows what they don’t want, still less what they do want, there’s no way of knowing that .” (pg. 175)

All this might sound rather deep (and it is), but there is humour in this novel too. In particular, Marías has great fun with the world of translators and interpreters, an arena that Juan and Luisa know very well. During the course of his work Juan must travel to New York, Geneva and other cities where he spends eight weeks at a time in the company of organizations ‘gripped by a veritable translational fever.’  Here’s Juan on his role as an interpreter at a typical international congress or meeting:

Some idiot has only to fire off some idiotic remark to one of these organizations for it to be instantly translated into all six official languages, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic. Everything gets turned into French and into Arabic, into Chinese and Russian, be it the foolish thoughts of some enthusiast on the sidelines or some other idiot’s bright idea. Even if nothing is ever done about them, they get translated. (pg. 49)

The novel also includes a very funny scene where Juan deliberately mistranslates and twists the words of a high-ranking Spanish politician during a private meeting with his British counterpart. (The British politician is almost certainly Margaret Thatcher.)

At first this topic might seem unconnected to the novel’s other themes, but I think Marías is drawing a link between the process of translation and the communication of information – how secrets are never revealed or translated, and the real truth remains concealed:

…the only truth is that which is known to no one and which remains un-transmitted, that which is not translated into words or images, that which remains concealed and unverified, which is perhaps why we do recount so much or even everything, to make sure that nothing has ever really happened, not once it’s been told. (pg. 186)

Heart is a novel to sink into and savour. Marías’s themes are deep, and there’s a philosophical, meditative quality to his writing. His long, looping sentences seem to capture a person’s thought process by giving us their initial perceptions or ideas, sometimes followed by qualifications or even an alternative theory. I love the writing in Heart and The Infatuations: the style is reflective and the tone quite seductive at times.

I feel this review is somewhat disjointed, and it might be a reflection of the episodic nature of Heart’s plot. The experience of reading Heart feels a little like observing a sequence of scenes from a play – each one conveying a very vivid picture, a scene from a life, but the narrative itself is not straightforward.

Particular images and ideas recur and reverberate throughout the novel: the image of man observing a woman from a distance; a man watching an apartment window; murmurs and whispers overheard in part; a hand on a shoulder; a head on a pillow…there are more, including the repetition of certain phrases or passages of prose. Each time an image or passage recurs, the context is different, but we know the scenes are connected in some way. For instance, there are parallels between an adulterous couple Juan and Luisa encounter on their honeymoon and other relationships in the narrative. It’s a novel brimming with reflections.

The plot is very cleverly constructed; it feels layered, and I noticed additional connections on this second reading. In the closing chapters, Marías goes for a resolution, and Juan discovers the reason for Teresa’s suicide. It’s a great ending and a very satisfying one.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, I absolutely love this book, and Marías is fast becoming one of my favourite writers.

Other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Richard (at Caravana de Recuerdos) and Tony Malone.

A Heart So White (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) is published in the UK by Penguin Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 9/20 in my #TBR20.