Review: A Heart So White by Javier Marias

Review: A Heart So White by Javier MariasA Heart So White by Javier Marias
Published by Vintage
Pages: 279
Genres: Literary Fiction
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Javier Marías's A Heart So White chronicles with unnerving insistence the relentless power of the past. Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; but when Juan marries, he begins to consider the past anew, and begins to ponder what he doesn't really want to know. Secrecy—its possible convenience, its price, and even its civility—hovers throughout the novel. A Heart So White becomes a sort of anti-detective story of human nature. Intrigue; the sins of the father; the fraudulent and the genuine; marriage and strange repetitions of violence: Marías elegantly sends shafts of inquisitory light into shadows and on to the costs of ambivalence.

 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.

Rec for people who love: Spain, art, languages, the new age whodunnit

Thoughts: This was my first book read because of LibraryThing. I think I was looking for books written by Spanish authors – everyone I know trips over themselves when talking about Arturo Perez-Reverte, but it seems that he is the only Spaniard with any real recognition. Using Wikipedia and Livejournal as my guide, I discovered that Javier Marias writes for El Pais, had an uncle who produced pornography, and a philosopher father imprisoned under Franco. Well, if that didn’t make me love him on the spot – I don’t know what could have.

So, onto my TBR list he went and that was that last I time I thought about him or the book. That is, until I happened to be in an Oxfam bookshop that I rarely visit four months later. And there it was. An unused, unloved and untouched “A Heart so White” begging for a good home. I remembered my five minute online affair with the novel, and snatched it from the shelf. Almost as if I had been afraid someone else had seen it.

And so began a two month long journey with Javier Marias’s narrator – Juan.

Okay, so maybe when I started reading I had my expectations a bit too high. No that’s not right – I just wasn’t ready for the style of the novel, and had had no idea what the book was about when I started to read. In fact, it took me about a month and a half to get past the first thirty pages. Throughout the first thirty pages, I knew the words themselves were beautiful – they were just really difficult. The prose is intense, and lyrical – but it is long. It’s kinda the typical problem a lot of genre fans have with lit fic – the, er, pretentiousness? But JM does not write the way he does merely for gloating rights – it’s just what he is bloody brilliant at. Some authors are can write intense multi-character dialogue, others bloody, brutal fight scenes – and JM is the master at writing a character’s stream of conciousness.

Juan writes – for it is hard for me not to think of him as a real person – the way he thinks. And while his thoughts are stunningly beautiful, until you learn to ride his mind with him, you might be tripping over the plot a bit.

Oh yes, the plot.

Well, I couldn’t quite come up with a decent summary of this book without sounding like a lunatic – that is, until I saw this raving review of Javier Marias’s work in the NYTimes:

A simultaneous translator, recently married to another simultaneous translator, uses the growing friendship between his wife and his father to unravel the mystery behind a suicide that took place before he was born. [ …] If you judged by the summary alone, you might guess that Marías’s fiction is ludicrously melodramatic or cruelly comic or tediously postmodern. It is none of these. On the contrary, all four novels possess an odd combination of true sadness and deeply satisfying wit that I have yet to find in any of Marías’s English or American contemporaries.

At the most basic level, the book is about a man discovering the truth about his father’s life. That’s how the book starts off and ends – but that won’t be why you’ll love this book. Marias’s Juan made me examine my own way of looking at the situations and people around me; inspired the philosopher I had never known was in me.

On another note, this book is excellent for all you armchair travelers out there. We head from Madrid to Havana to New York to the UN to Geneva and back again. Also, I would like to congratulate Margaret Jull Costa on her fabulous translation of this breathtaking novel. ♥

You can read the first chapter of this excellent novel, here.