Reading: A Heart So White – Javier Marias

by zee

My first exposure to Javier Marias was a short story (read by Miette from Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast) called While the Women are Sleeping. I admired how he built his plot very slowly with seemingly ordinary scenes and conversations – and then a bang and you’re left, together with the narrator, to think through what really just happened. (I wrote a short review here.)

A Heart So White - Javier MariasA Heart So White opened with the suicide of the wife of a newly wed couple, just off from their honeymoon. Gun to the heart, bam! off Teresa went to the other world.

The husband of the couple is Ranz, Juan’s father.

Juan did not know much about his father’s personal life, besides the fact that Teresa is his mother’s elder sister. Juan did not ask for details; and when he did, Ranz refuse to divulge any information to him.

Juan marries Luisa, who, like him, is a translator and interpreter for various government bodies and organisations. He is extremely sensitive to words – or, more accurately, the act of interpreting words, of interpretation itself. For every scenes or events that unfold before him, he would, consciously or unconsciously, contemplate and interpret the meaning behind.

So how did the title of the book come about?

My hands are of your colour but I shame
To wear a heart so white.
— Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Throughout the novel Marias interweaves the theme in a series of seemingly unrelated and trivial events. We see how the theme evolve in these events, and slowly begun to see – but only the tip of an iceberg – of what the author has in mind.

I personally think it is extremely intelligent of him to write this way. It was quiet for perhaps the first 3/4 of the book, and at the end we see the theme again, but written like a musical piece, a crescendo to a sforzando and then back to piano. (I really love the ending!) The events, the meanings behind these events, layer upon each other, weave by the common theme from that line of Macbeth; but there seems to be something beneath all these, a core theme. What is it?

That is, perhaps, what the author wants you to do – find your own interpretation.

One important thing to note about Marias is that he writes without a plot in mind; and he does not go back to whatever he has written, he just moves on from where he has stopped, which may explain this: Marias lets Juan think in long paragraphs, even during a conversation. The words loop around and around a single idea – do it few more times (just like how humans get obsessed with certain ideas/thoughts and repetitively think of it) and I feel like yelling at Juan/Marias to get straight to the point!

Oh, one thing that annoys me – why don’t the female characters have any character? To me, they seemed to exist as purely a medium to get across what is on the author’s mind. Even the minor male characters such as Custardoy the Younger gets more personality than Luisa. I wonder if it’s the Spanish machismo.

Reading this book felt like reading Marias’s thoughts. There are parts where it seemed that he/Juan is quite against the institution of marriage – no, scratch that – more like he is against the notion of getting into marriage without a purpose, doing just for the sake of it. Being a 20-something with friends who dream of/is getting married, I do find it quite comforting to know there are someone out there who shares the same thoughts as me – do we do things just for the sake of it, going with society’s standard?

It is only 288 pages but you are definitely not going to finish in one sitting. Too heavy for that. Repetitions can get quite tiring, really, but I would say this is one brilliant book that I would go back again and again.

p/s The paperback published by Random House UK is wonderful, it doesn’t crease at the spine nor does the cover “floats up”!! We need good binding like this :D

Read: Javier Marias interview on The Paris ReviewInterview on The White ReviewGoodreads page

Read this on Two Weeks A Book

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