A Heart So White

A Heart So White

5.0 3
by Javier Marias

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Family secrets are the prime elements of A Heart So White, perhaps the greatest novel by "the most talented Spanish author alive" (Il Messagero). Born in 1951 in Madrid, Javier Marias has published twenty books and is a literary phenomenon worldwide. Translated into twenty-eight languages, his books have sold more than three and a half million copies--an


Family secrets are the prime elements of A Heart So White, perhaps the greatest novel by "the most talented Spanish author alive" (Il Messagero). Born in 1951 in Madrid, Javier Marias has published twenty books and is a literary phenomenon worldwide. Translated into twenty-eight languages, his books have sold more than three and a half million copies--an amazing quantity for so literary a writer. He has collected a dazzling array of awards, including for A Heart So White the Dublin IMPAC Prize for the best novel published worldwide in English in 1996. A Heart So White, probably Javier Marías's best-known novel, chronicles with unnerving insistence family secrets -- and the relentless power of the past. Juan knows little of the interior life of his father Ranz; each has always seemed comfortable with their friendly but distant orbit. Only when Juan marries (and his new wife begins to find much to talk about with Ranz) does his son consider the past anew, and yet he doesn't really want to know. Secrecy, its possible convenience and even civility, hovers throughout the novel -- it is a sort of anti-detective story of human nature. The sins of the father; the fraudulent and the genuine; marriage and strange repetitions of violence: Marias elegantly sends shafts of inquisitory light into shadows. At the center of A Heart So White are the costs of ambivalence. ("My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white" -- Shakespeare's Macbeth.)

Editorial Reviews

Wendy Lesser
Marías...remains almost unknown in America. What are we waiting for?
James Woodall
The work of a supreme stylist.... It is brilliantly done.
Boston Globe
The most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature.
Ben Donnelly
Marìas's novel mixes philosophy and kinkiness, suspense and contemplation.
Kirkus Reviews
A harrowing drama of family secrets and their deepening resonance throughout several involved lives, by an accomplished European author whose All Souls (not reviewed) appeared in English translation in 1993.

Marias's novel (winner of the Spanish Critics' Award) begins with its narrator Juan's imagined reconstruction of the suicide of his father's first wife, his mother's sister, shortly following their honeymoon. Juan and his new wife, Luisa, are both translators and interpreters who labor to facilitate communication among "delegates and representatives" at various multilingual international congresses. They're also both perpetrators and victims of miscommunication within their own relationship and as members of Juan's continually traumatized family. The guilt borne by his father Ranz, a menacing, almost satanic figure whose experience of marriage and widowhood eludes his son's full understanding, casts troubling shadows over all those close to him—and finds mocking parallels in Juan's friendship with a crippled woman victimized by her recalcitrant lover and in his chance observation of an adulterous couple who may or may not be plotting murder. These perplexities are rendered in an unusual style that blends Jamesian introspection and qualification with headlong melodrama and rapid nonstop sentences. Marias's title and epigraph allude openly to Macbeth's murder of Duncan, and its sinister burden of simultaneous cumulative revelation and deepening mystery powerfully expresses its stated sense that "nothing that happens happens . . . and the weak wheel of the world is pushed along by forgetful beings who hear and see and know what is not said, never happens, is unknowable and unverifiable." The impression of characters caught in the toils of their own self-conscious self- exploration is reminiscent of Sartre's No Exit. The novel circles repeatedly, with an unflinching concentrated gaze, on its people's awkward spasmodic efforts to bridge the gaps that frustrate their need for mutuality and union.

The flawed, truncated nature of all human contact and efforts to reach it has rarely been given such remorseless stress.

From the Publisher
"By far Spain's best writer today." —Roberto Bolaño

"Brilliant. . . . An entertaining and intelligent novel." —The Washington Post

"The most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature." —Boston Sunday Globe

"Marías is simply astonishing." —The Times Literary Supplement

“Marías is one of the best contemporary writers.” —J. M. Coetzee
"A great writer." —Salman Rushdie

"One of the writers who should get the Nobel Prize is Javier Marías." —Orhan Pamuk
"Stylish, cerebral...Marías is a startling talent...His prose is ambitious, ironic, philosophical, and ultimately compassionate." —The New York Times

“His prose demonstrates an unusual blend of sophistication and accessibility.” —The New Yorker 

 “Javier Marías is such an elegant, witty and persuasive writer that it is tempting simply to quote him at length.” —The Scotsman

"Marías uses language like an anatomist uses the scalpel to cut away the layers of the flesh in order to lay bare the innermost secrets of that strangest of species, the human being." —W. G. Sebald

"His prose possesses an exquisite, almost uncanny observation, recreating moments and moods in hypnotic depth." —The Telegraph

“Javier Marías is a novelist with style . . . His readers enter, through him, a strikingly and disturbingly foreign world.” —Margaret Drabble

"A supreme stylist." —The Times

"Marías writes the kind of old-fashioned speculative prose we associate with Proust and Henry James. . . .  But he also deals in violence, historical and personal, and in the movie titles, politicians, and brand-names and underwear we connect with quite a different kind of writer." —The London Review of Books

Product Details

Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.81(h) x 1.09(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I DID NOT WANT to know but I have since come to know that one of the girls, when she wasn't a girl anymore 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. When they heard the shot, some five minutes after the gift had left the table, her father didn't get up at once, but stayed there for a few seconds, paralysed, his mouth still full of food, not daring to chew or swallow, far less to spit the food out on to his plate; and when he finally did get up and run to the bathroom, those who followed him noticed that when he discovered the blood-spattered body of his daughter and clutched his head in his hands, he kept passing the mouthful of meat from one cheek to the other, still not knowing what to do with it. He was carrying his napkin in one hand and he didn't let go of it until, after a few moments, he noticed the bra that had been flung into the bidet and he covered it with the one piece of cloth that he had to hand or rather in his hand and which his lips had sullied, as if he were more ashamed of the sight of her underwear than of her fallen, half-naked body with which, until only a short time before, the article of underwear had been in contact: the same body that had been sitting at the table, that had walked down the corridor, that had stood there. Before that, with an automatic gesture, the father had turned off the tap in the basin, the cold tap, which had been turned full on.Hisdaughter must have been crying when she stood before the mirror, unbuttoned her blouse, took off her bra and felt for her heart with the gun, because, as she lay stretched out on the cold floor of the huge bathroom, her eyes were still full of tears, tears no one had noticed during lunch and that could not possibly have welled up once she'd fallen to the floor dead. Contrary to her custom and contrary to the general custom, she hadn't bolted the door, which made her father think (but only briefly and almost without thinking it, as he finally managed to swallow) that perhaps his daughter, while she was crying, had been expecting, wanting someone to open the door and to stop her doing what she'd done, not by force, but by their mere presence, by looking at her naked, living body or by placing a hand on her shoulder. But no one else (apart from her this time, and because she was no longer a little girl) went to the bathroom during lunch. The breast that hadn't taken the full impact of the blast was clearly visible, maternal and white and still firm, and everyone instinctively looked at that breast, more than anything in order to avoid looking at the other, which no longer existed or was now nothing but blood. It had been many years since her father had seen that breast, not since its transformation, not since it began to be maternal, and for that reason, he felt not only frightened but troubled too. The other girl, her sister, who had seen the changes wrought by adolescence and possibly later too, was the first to touch her, with a towel (her own pale blue towel, which was the one she usually picked up), with which she began to wipe the tears from her sister's face, tears mingled with sweat and water, because before the tap had been turned off, the jet of water had been splashing against the basin and drops had fallen on to her sister's face, her white breast, her crumpled skirt, as she lay on the floor. She also made hasty attempts to staunch the blood as if that might make her sister better, but the towel became immediately drenched and useless, it too became tainted with blood. Instead of leaving it to soak up more blood and to cover her sister's chest, she withdrew it when she saw how red the towel had become (it was her own towel after all) and left it draped over the edge of the bath and it hung there dripping. She kept talking, but all she could say, over and over, was her sister's name. One of the guests couldn't help glancing at himself in the mirror, from a distance, and quickly smoothing his hair, it was just a moment, but time enough for him to notice that the mirror's surface was also splashed with blood and water (but not with sweat) as was anything reflected in it, including his own face looking back at him. He was standing on the threshold, like the other two guests, not daring to go in, as if despite the abandonment of all social niceties, they considered that only members of the family had the right to do so. The three guests merely peered round the door, leaning forwards slightly the way adults do when they speak to children, not going any further out of distaste or respect, possibly out of distaste, despite the fact that one of them (the one who'd looked at himself in the mirror) was a doctor and the normal thing would have been for him to step confidently forward and examine the girl's body or, at the very least, to kneel down and place two fingers on the pulse in her neck. He didn't do so, not even when the father, who was growing ever paler and more distressed, turned to him and, pointing to his daughter's body, said "Doctor" in an imploring but utterly unemphatic tone, immediately turning his back on him again, without waiting to see if the doctor would respond to his appeal. He turned his back not only on him and on the others but also on his daughters, the one still alive and the one he still couldn't bring himself to believe was dead and, with his elbows resting on the edge of the sink and his forehead cupped in his hands, he began to vomit up everything he'd eaten including the piece of meat he'd just swallowed whole without even chewing it. His son, the girls' brother, who was considerably younger than the two daughters, went over to him, but all he could do to help was to seize the tails of his father's jacket, as if to hold him down and keep him steady as he retched, but to those watching it seemed more as if he were seeking help from his father at a time when the latter couldn't give it to him. Someone could be heard whistling quietly. The boy from the shop — who sometimes didn't deliver their order until lunchtime and who, when the shot was first heard, had been busily unpacking the boxes he'd brought — also stuck his head round the door, still whistling, the way boys often do as they walk along, but he stopped at once (he was the same age as the youngest son) when he saw the pair of low-heeled shoes cast aside or just half-off at the heel, the skirt hitched up and stained with blood — her thighs stained too — for from where he was standing that was all he could see of the fallen daughter. As he could neither ask what had happened nor push his way past, and since no one took any notice of him and he had no way of finding out whether or not there were any empties to be taken back, he resumed his whistling (this time to dispel his fear or to lessen the shock) and went back into the kitchen, assuming that sooner or later the maid would reappear, the one who normally gave him his orders and who was neither where she was supposed to be nor with the others in the corridor, unlike the cook, who, being an associate member of the family, had one foot in the bathroom and one foot out and was wiping her hands on her apron or perhaps making the sign of the cross. The maid who, at the precise moment when the shot rang out, had been setting down on the marble table in the scullery the empty dishes she'd just brought through and had thus confused the noise of the shot with the clatter she herself was making, had since been arranging on another dish, with enormous care but little skill — the errand boy meanwhile was making just as much noise unpacking his boxes — the ice-cream cake she'd been told to buy that morning because there would be guests for lunch; and once the cake was ready and duly arrayed on the plate, and when she judged that the people in the dining room would have finished their second course, she'd carried it through and placed it on the table on which, much to her bewilderment, there were still bits of meat on the plates and knives and forks and napkins scattered randomly about the tablecloth, and not a single guest (there was only one absolutely clean plate, as if one of them, the eldest daughter, had eaten more quickly than the others and had even wiped her plate dean, or rather hadn't even served herself with any meat). She realized then that, as usual, she'd made the mistake of taking in the dessert before she'd cleared the plates away and laid new ones, but she didn't dare collect the dirty ones and pile them up in case the absent guests hadn't finished with them and would want to resume their eating (perhaps she should have brought in some fruit as well). Since she had orders not to wander about the house during mealtimes and to restrict herself to running between the kitchen and the dining room so as not to bother or distract anyone, she didn't dare join in the murmured conversation of the group gathered round the bathroom door, why they were there she still didn't know, and so she stood and waited, her hands behind her back and her back against the sideboard, looking anxiously at the cake she'd just left in the centre of the abandoned table and wondering if, given the heat, she shouldn't instead return it immediately to the fridge. She sang quietly to herself, picked up a fallen salt cellar and poured wine into an empty glass, the glass belonging to the doctor's wife, who tended to drink quickly. After a few minutes watching while the cake began to soften, and still unable to make a decision, she heard the front doorbell go, and since one of her duties was to answer the door, she adjusted her cap, straightened her apron, checked that her stockings weren't twisted and went out into the corridor. She glanced quickly to her left, at the group whose murmured comments and exclamations she'd listened to intrigued, but she didn't pause or approach them and walked off to the right, as was her duty. When she opened the door she was met by a fading trail of laughter and by a strong smell of cologne (the landing was in darkness) which emanated either from the eldest son of the family or from the new brother-in-law, who'd recently returned from his honeymoon, for the two had arrived together, perhaps having met in the street or downstairs at the street door(they'd doubtless come for coffee, although no one had made any yet). Infected by their gaiety, the maid almost laughed too, but stood to one side to let them pass and just had time to see how the expressions on their faces changed at once and how they rushed down the corridor towards the crowd standing round the bathroom door. The husband, the brother-in-law, ran behind, his face terribly pale, one hand on the brother's shoulder, as if trying to prevent him from seeing what he might see, or as if to hold on to him. This time the maid didn't go back into the dining room, she followed them, quickening her step as if by assimilation, and when she reached the bathroom door, she again noticed, even more strongly this time, the smell of good cologne emanating from one or both of the gentlemen, as if a bottle of it had been smashed or as if one of them had suddenly begun to sweat and the smell was thus accentuated. She stayed there, without going in, along with the cook and the guests, and she saw, out of the corner of her eye, that the boy from the shop was walking, still whistling, from the kitchen into the dining room, doubtless looking for her; but she was too frightened to call out to him or to scold him or to pay him any attention at all. The boy, who'd already seen quite enough, no doubt hung about for a good while in the dining room and then left without saying goodbye or taking with him the empty bottles, because hours later, when the melted cake was finally cleared away, wrapped in paper and thrown into the wastebin, a large part of it was found to be missing, although none of the guests had eaten any, and the wine glass belonging to the doctor's wife was once again empty. Everyone said how unlucky for Ranz, the brother-in-law, the husband, my father, being widowed for a second time.

Meet the Author

Javier Marías is an award-winning Spanish novelist. He is also a translator and columnist, as well as the current king of Redonda. He was born in Madrid in 1951 and published his first novel at the age of nineteen. He has held academic posts in Spain, the US (he was a visiting professor at Wellesley College) and Britain, as a lecturer in Spanish Literature at Oxford University. He has been translated into 34 languages, and more than six million copies of his books have been sold worldwide. In 1997 he won the Nelly Sachs Award; the Comunidad de Madrid award in 1998; in 2000 the Grinzane Cavour Award, the Alberto Moravia Prize, and the Dublin IMPAC Award. He also won the Spanish National Translation Award in 1979 for his translation of Tristram Shandy in 1979. He was a professor at Oxford University and the Complutense of Madrid. He currently lives in Madrid.

Margaret Jull Costa is an award-winning translator of Portuguese and Spanish literature. She lives in the United Kingdom.

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A Heart So White 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want to read a great book don't miss this chance, from spanish and universal contemporary writer.
bonkey More than 1 year ago
Could not begin to tell you how wonder Javier Marias' is- so see for yourself. Spectacular!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would highly recommend this book as an interesting read into the lives of this Spanish Family. Very interesting.