Wednesday 15 June 2016

A Heart So White

Acting on a hot tip from Bryan and a fated sighting on a charity shop bookshelf, I've been reading a novel by the highly rated Spanish writer Javier Marías - A Heart So White. Along the way I'd also been impressed by hearing Marías talking on a Radio 4 book programme and coming across as vastly more interesting and (in the best sense) cultured than most writers who turn up there.
 A Heart So White could, I suppose, be characterised as a meditation on time and memory, love and matrimony, and the telling and keeping of secrets. It begins with a bang, with the one truly dramatic event in the whole story - a shocking suicide - related in the extraordinary opening sentence:
'I did not want to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn't a girl any more 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.'
After that, who would not read on? I was duly hooked, but I must admit I didn't find it easy, and for a while I had my doubts about Marías. Or rather, perhaps, about his narrator, Juan, a newly married (Spanish) translator and interpreter who is in the grip of an undefined sense of foreboding, and who seems unable to stop himself qualifying every tentative statement he makes, piling up the subordinate clauses, and making life difficult for the reader by writing in very long sentences broken only by commas.
 This was for a while rather wearing, but before long I found it was becoming strangely enthralling - what was Juan/Marías up to? Each chapter seemed quite discrete - on honeymoon in Havana, Juan is mistaken for her unreliable lover by a very angry woman in the street below his balcony; Juan acts as interpreter at a high-level meeting between an English politician (who is clearly Mrs Thatcher) and her Spanish opposite number; Juan meditates on the murder of Duncan in Macbeth... But gradually, as you read on, you realise that patterns are forming - fascinating patterns - and that this is an extraordinarily cleverly constructed novel, an elegant cat's cradle of associations, echoes, reflections and resonances. Nothing, however apparently irrelevant, goes to waste; every thread is woven back in, often long after its first appearance. The great W.G. Sebald called Marías his 'twin writer' and, in terms of structure and tone of voice, it's not hard to see why, though A Heart So White is more like a novel, as commonly understood, than anything Sebald wrote. 
 I already have Marías's All Souls and his (non-fiction) Written Lives on order. I feel as if I've found a real writer here, thanks to that hot tip.  


  1. I heard the BBC Bookclub on his "Infatuations" Shall explore. Thank you for the recommendation.