Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 22, 2020

A Heart So White, by Javier Marais, translated by Margaret Jull Costa


I’ve been really slack in my quest to read 1001 Books before I die, so it seemed like a good idea to choose one of those to read for #SpanishLitMonth at Winston’s Dad. A Heart So White by Javier Marais has this citation in the 2006 edition:

The novel opens with an almost documentary account of a suicide and ends with a meditation on the untranslatable mysteries of the gender divide.  (1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, ABC Books, 2006, ISBN 9780733321214, p. 814)

Indeed it does.  It’s a strange, discursive work, more about the difficulties of truth-telling in life and relationships than the plot… which is really only a mild mystery that carries very little in the way of narrative tension.

Juan’s father has made a mystery of having been married three times.  The suicide which so graphically begins the novel is that of Ranz’s second wife, and as the child of the third marriage, Juan knows very little about either his mother who also died young, or her predecessor, her older sister.   From the outset the reader knows that the suicide isn’t a murder because Ranz wasn’t even there at the time, but there is something odd about it.  By the time Juan is old enough to know about things, the first wife, the predecessor of the woman who shot herself, is never spoken of.  Juan begins to be curious because of a slip of the tongue, but when he asks his father his question is brushed off.  Ranz is one of those annoying people who likes to be enigmatic: his one piece of advice to Juan on the occasion of his marriage to Luisa is to tell him never to reveal his secrets to his wife.

But the puzzle of these marriages has only secondary importance in the novel. A Heart So White is more about Juan’s musings about the problem of truth in his relationship with his new wife.  He ponders the change in his identity as it changes from ‘I’ to ‘We’ and ‘Me’ to ‘Us’. He is uncomfortable with the loss of his own place to a shared place; and he is uneasy with having things that are not his but theirs.    He makes much of the fact that as a translator he is always thinking about how to say things and to interpret the things that are said to him. Words are rarely able to be directly translated… there are always nuances of meaning that defy correspondence in another language.

To complicate the intricacies of imperfect translation, Juan also overhears strange conversations through barricades: hotel walls, bedroom doors.  In Cuba on his honeymoon he overhears a bizarre conversation between a Cuban woman and her Spanish lover.  She wants him to kill his wife because their relationship is going nowhere; he fobs her off.  Juan becomes very preoccupied by this conversation, but he doesn’t explain how he came to overhear it to his wife.  There are a lot of things he doesn’t tell his wife, and he muses over memories half-shared and not, so many things unsaid.  (He certainly doesn’t tell Luisa about his father’s marital advice, not that he has any secrets anyway).

Then there is a bizarre situation in New York, where Juan is translating for an inter-governmental talkfest and staying with an old friend and former lover called Berta.  Berta’s love life has been compromised by a car accident which left her slightly scarred and with a limp, so she’s exploring the possibilities of the personals.  Yes, this is before Tinder, and also before Sexting — but the shared raunchy video has become part of the matchmaking process and Berta needs Juan to film it for her.  (Which, unsurprisingly makes him feel very uncomfortable indeed).  What narrative tension there is in this book occurs when Berta meets up with ‘Bill’ and Juan becomes very worried about her safety.  Thinking about the complexities of this relationship and Berta’s acquiescence to Bill’s demands for a video, Juan says:

Any relationship between two people always brings with it a multitude of problems and coercions, as well as insults and humiliation. (p.89)

Juan sees a side of Berta that he hadn’t known about, and when he gets back to Spain, he discovers a side of Luisa that he hadn’t known about either.  A couple of incidents make him vaguely suspicious, including of his own father who has a rather flirty relationship with his daughter-in-law.  And Luisa, who has by chance caught a whiff of the mystery of The First Wife, decides to use her wiles to winkle the truth out of Ranz.

The Big Reveal made me think of David Malouf’s book On Experience, and also of Edith Wharton’s The Reef.  Once you know something, you can’t un-know it; you can never regain that lost innocence.  In The Reef a promising relationship is irrevocably damaged by revelations about the past.  Sometimes, you’re better off not to know…

PS You might be interested to visit this post by Jonathan Gibbs at Tiny Camels, in which he discusses Marais’ ‘dilatory’ style.

Author: Javier Marais
Title: A Heart So White
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
Publisher: Vintage, 2003, first published as Corazón tan blanco, 1992
Cover photo: L’Espagnole by Man Ray
ISBN: 9780099448525, pbk., 279 pages
Source: personal library, purchased back in 2014…



  1. Interesting post, Lisa. I’ve struggled to engage with him, despite trying a couple of times after which I gave up. I figured life is too short, and although he’s so well regarded he’s just maybe not for me…


    • I know where you’re coming from. This was a book that took over a week to read because there was nothing really to pull me back to reading it. I read some of it the first night in bed, and it’s not a bedtime book because you need to concentrate on his discursive style, so the next night I read a bit, and then I read something else. LOL and then the something else (Black Rabbit) was more interesting. And then the same thing happened with A Train in Winter (though it was a mistake to read that at night, I couldn’t get to sleep after reading the Auschwitz sections), and the same thing happened with A Bookshop in Algiers. And then I gave myself a good smack and finished reading A Heart So White in the morning (a good excuse to loaf in bed). I found myself enjoying it then, but I must admit, I have another more recent Marais on the TBR and it’s a bit of a chunkster, and I’m not so keen to make a start on that one…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for showcasing A Heart So White, Lisa. It is one of my very favourite novels – and I also love the later novels of Javier Marias. I particularly admire Tomorrow in the Battle, and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. His essays are also wonderful. I think Berta Isla is the author’s most recent novel – again about spies and marriages and the dark mysteries of being alive.


    • Hello Carmel… your comment surprised me because I didn’t think I could see any influences in your work… and then I remembered how in Field of Poppies you show Marsali thinking, and I commented in my review about how she reminded me of a friend of mine who has the same discursive style.
      Now I’m trying to understand myself. Why did I love Field of Poppies and not love A Heart So White?


  3. I tried to read this a few years back having picked up a cheap secondhand copy and just could not get into it. It sounds like the kind of novel you need to read in large chunks — say an entire afternoon or all day Sunday — which might have been why I struggled as I was trying to read it on my 20 minute commute…


    • I agree, it’s not what I call a ‘handbag’ book, one that you can read in small chunks on trains, in waiting rooms or during the sport part of the news.
      But having said that, if you’re in, or have been, in a relationship, it will zero your thoughts in on the perils of communication!

      Liked by 1 person

      • So glad I’m not the only one who tunes out during the sports segment of the news Lisa!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow… sounds fascinating! Thanks!


  5. Sounds quite intriguing. I want to try this author, but maybe this book is not one I would enjoy


    • I should try to get to the other one that I have, to see if it’s easier to read…


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