Sunday, 12 May 2013

'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 :)