“The novel is, very simply, about how Juan comes to know the secret behind his aunt’s suicide, and his father’s role in it.”
When Javier Marías finally wins the Nobel Prize for Literature — he’s perennially considered to be on the shortlist — he’ll have no need to thank American readers. His international renown as a novelist for the ages rivals that of Haruki Murakami, yet despite plenty of critical attention here, Marías gets none of the love that his peer enjoys at US bookstores.
Maybe he needs some talking cats. Whereas Murakami’s novels spiral outward from seemingly mundane beginnings to increasingly surreal tableaux, Marías’ turn discursively inward — first, into familiar realities constructed primarily by metaphysics and language, and only second by the actions of his characters. Translation: a Marías novel is generally a slow read.
That said, A Heart So White — perhaps the best introduction to Marías’ oeuvre — starts with a bang. Juan, our narrator, describes the suicide of his father’s second wife, who inexplicably shot herself in the chest while her family ate lunch in the next room. Her widowed husband went on to marry her sister, Juan’s mother, but the story of “the woman who would have been yet never could have been my Aunt Teresa” continues to haunt Juan, even after his own marriage. The rest of the novel is, very simply, about how Juan comes to know the secret behind his aunt’s suicide, and his father’s role in it.
The truth, when it comes, is astonishing not only because we could never have foreseen it, but also because it makes clear that the novel’s narrator, whose method can initially seem rather aimless and inscrutable, very much has a purpose all along. Juan tells a story about a big secret by talking about little ones, limning all the different parts of ourselves that we can never explain to one another. Marías’ insights into the human experience are brilliant throughout, but the depths of his artistry can’t be plumbed without patience and faith on our part. Marías asks a lot of readers, but the five million who are happy to oblige him can’t all be wrong.
– Chris Parris-Lamb