A Heart So White by Javier Marías

Once I read some praise for this novel, and I also liked its title very much, so I’m sure I would have read it sooner or later. Then a couple of months ago I came across another blog post about this novel in which the blogger mentioned that A Heart So White is full of eight-line sentences and highly irritating parenthetical interjections. Well, you may or may not have noticed, but I am prone to write eight-line long sentences and parenthetical interjections myself, so I thought that these irritating features might in fact prove quite enjoyable to me. Therefore I asked my sister to borrow this book for me from the library, as I felt a great urge to find out about Marías’s long sentences as soon as possible.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Juan, a recently married thirtyish translator, and A Heart So White is basically a long series of his musings, his reflections on the past and his attempts to explain the world to himself. The center of the virtually non-existent story is that after his own wedding, Juan becomes interested in the story of his father’s three marriages, and even though he is not sure he really wants to know what kind of secrets are concealed in his father’s past, his curiosity gets the better of him and he cannot hide from the unpleasant and perhaps even dangerous truth.

As it usually happens in this kind of soul-searching, past-revealing novels, by the end of the story we learn the long-concealed secret of Juan’s father. But as it is, the secret itself is not that very important, and what mattered forty years ago doesn’t really matter now. The secret only serves as a convenient referential point which makes it possible for the narrator to muse (under the pretext that he is working hard to reveal the big secret) about as diverse topics as the changes that occur in the relationship of a couple after they get married; the need to understand everything and the impossibility of not understanding and not knowing; the way hearing and knowing something relates to guilt and innocence; the recurring events and the chance coincidences which abound in everyone’s life; the role language plays in our understanding and deception of the other person; or the way something becomes a secret.

These topics are simply wonderful by themselves, and the way Marías covers them in the novel makes them even more so. I was both fascinated and entertained by the constant digressions of the narrator (everything reminds Juan of something else, so it can easily happen that one character asks a question, and we only get the answer after a two-page long interjection or a description of something that’s just come to the narrator’s mind upon hearing the question), and I admired his efforts to understand and explain everything perfectly (it’s easy to see that he writes so many complicated sentences and parenthetical interjections because every explanation can be refined further, and this constant refinement is exactly what the narrator is after).

The narrator can talk interestingly about anything, but still, I enjoyed his ruminations about the nature of language, understanding and deception the most. This also happens to be one of the most important topics for the narrator, which may come as no surprise, given that he works as an interpreter, therefore it is his job to pay attention to language, voices, choices of words, shades of meaning – no matter whom he is talking or listening to. On the one hand, his job makes his life more difficult, as he is accustomed to listening to and interpreting everything so he cannot let go even in his free time, and if he hears anyone speaking in a language he understands he cannot help but listen and interpret. So Juan sometimes suffers from his need to understand everything, on the other hand, however, he is well aware of the power his ability to understand and translate words endows him with – and he doesn’t hesitate to use this power either.

My favorite example for this is the story of Juan’s first meeting with his wife, Luisa. Luisa works as an interpreter as well, and once she is present as an observer at a meeting of a Spanish and an English politician where Juan interprets. Seized by a sudden impulse (and risking his job), Juan decides that he spices up the boring meeting, so he deliberately mistranslates some sentences in order to steer the conversation to a more personal and exciting direction. And even though it would be Luisa’s task to interrupt Juan at this point, she decides to overlook Juan’s deliberate mistakes. This way the two of them become accomplices in the deception and decide to use their linguistic abilities to influence and deceive others, and in a way change the world according to their whims.

This was only a single example, and the novel abounds in such beautiful episodes. But as I already implied, A Heart So White is just as fascinating when nothing happens, thanks to the structure and language Marías uses: sentences and even whole paragraphs keep recurring in the novel, and all the repetitions (not only of words, but symbols, metaphors, and human interactions and relations) have quite a hypnotic and bewitching effect in the end.

Of course you don’t necessarily have to agree with the narrator’s philosophy – but it’s for sure that you will find it hard to ignore the sheer beauty and pervasive force of his trains of thought.

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