A Heart So White by Javier Marías is a novel published, originally in the Spanish language, in the year 1992. In the year 1995, an English translation by Margaret Jull Costa was published by The Harvill Press, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Javier Marías is one of Spain’s most celebrated and prolific novelists; according to J.M. Coetzee, he is ‘one of the best contemporary writers.’ The great novelist, essayist and poet W.G. Sebald considered Marías as a ‘twin writer.’ In the past few days I’d spent glaring at the gigantic stack of paperbacks in my small home library, unable to pick a book to read or motivate myself to do so (I was, at the time, finishing Stoner by John Williams); I watched a book reviewer named Cliff Sargent (betterthanfood) who heaped praises on this book and called it ‘phenomenally good’. As per the earlier selections and reviews of Mr Sargent, I was, undoubtedly, convinced of his good taste in fiction and took his advice and recommendation seriously. Thus, I picked up the book and finished it in three days, which is because this is a book which demands to be slowly read, savoured and devoured.
The plot is thin, the writing isn’t; in fact, this book is structurally, narratively and psychologically flawless and faultless in its portrayal of an elusive puzzle of sex, love and morality, the art of listening, remembering, existence and passage of time. It begins with a suicide; Juan, the young man, is getting married and learns of his father’s second wife’s death (suicide). After Teresa Alguiera’s death, Ranz married her sister Juana Aguilera and give birth to his son, Juan. Juan, a translator and interpreter, gets to know the haunting incident of Teresa’s suicide and the mystery haunts hismind and the world he occupies. He wanders and meditates on the secrecy of the past and draws parallels, unjustified and unnecessary at times, to bring himself closer to the lost past, to regain it and complete the puzzle. But the primary question that the novel asks is one that of hearing and remembrance; is it in our favour, always, to learn about the undiscoverable, undesirable or the unknowable, or is better to let the past cancel out itself, unheard and unremembered, forever buried in the soil of time?
For the most part, the novel is a contemplation of the narrator’s inner world which is at times merging or clashing with his physical surroundings, the human beings and their secrets, their cryptic personal lives contrasting with the general portrait they present of themselves. The novel is written in a back and forth manner; the time shifts in the narrative are drastic, the tone of the novel changes from time to time, the novel presents a twisted picture of its narratorial world, of its characters and allegories, instances and symbolisms, at once shocking and astonishing. Especially, for literature students, one of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the quotations from Macbeth by Shakespeare; the title itself is borrowed from the play and the book makes several, valuable and perfectly suited intertextual references to Macbeth. In this book, the intertextual references, unlike many other works of fiction, are not present to show the author’s erudition or give the work more craftiness, rather the references are thrilling, they occupy a place in the novel and form an essential part of the reading experience.
One significant aspect of the author which is most inherently visible in writing; even in the most sublime and delicate portions of the novel, is the skill of authority or in other words, the control, dominance and clarity of thought in terms of what the book is all about. Every sentence earns its place, every word serves a purpose, and the writer makes the reading experience effortless for the reader, who is nonetheless swayed and confidently reassured of the rewards. The reader is, from the very first page, assured of the writer’s craftsmanship. The only contemporary writers who have been able to show a profound clarity thought, narrative mastery, innovative vocabulary in line with the modern linguistic style, and yet possessing, despite the warmth and emotional depth, a cold sense of precision; resembling that of a scalpel digging into a precise corner of the human flesh.
On a sentence-by-sentence level, this novel is a brilliant example of breaking the boundaries of prose. Marías is a master of long, complex and word-perfect sentences which showcase the deeply felt emotions with the precision of an analytical gaze. He is one of those authors who can write deep, complex phrases of human truth and human struggle, as to be found in the works of Tolstoy, Jane Austen and Gustave Flaubert. In this novel, there are sentences, passages and paragraphs; at times pages, worth quoting at length due to the sheer beauty and admirable sense of truthfulness, at times dark and uncomfortable, yet always beautiful and profound. Some sentences took my breath away and passages that kept me on my toes. Inherent in this work, is a constant undercurrent of the writer’s wisdom, literary knowledge and mastery of the language.
Javier Marías is also, as evident in the novel, a very sophisticated writer. His prose deals with the darkest and dirtiest shades of human truth and morality yet his language never betrays a sense of disgust or vulgarity; instead, it remains precise, dignified and masterly throughout, drawing in the reader into the wardrobes and closets of the human mind. Structurally, this novel does something exceptional. At the beginning of the first act, it shows the incident through the imagination of the protagonist and then, it wanders into different scenarios and psychological insecurities and dilemmas. These things dissolve into a second act, and we get to know more about our protagonist, his life, his relationships and his thoughts, his weaknesses. With masterly skill, Marías culminates the final act by drawing every element from the novel and bringing those elements into the brightness of light, to make sense of them; make sense of their place in the novel. The ending takes the reader’s breath away, and one is dazzled by the sheer cleverness and deeply felt moral intelligence of the novel.
To conclude, Javier Marías’ A Heart So White is a dazzling performance which paints an unforgettable portrait of modern relationships and perennial insecurities of our world. It is a thrilling and remarkable novel which leaves the reader breathless and in awe of the beauty of the novel form and the boundaries it can traverse. A Heart So White belongs to a class of its own and proves to be a masterpiece. One of the best things I have ever read.