Monday, 12 November 2012

Book Review: A Heart So White

A Heart So White is a novel by Javier Marías. It was first published in 1992 and received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997. 

The following is a summary of the book by Samantha Schnee:

Juan is a newlywed translator who shuttles between the UN in New York and the Hague for six to eight weeks at a time, while his young bride Luisa, also a translator, remains behind in Madrid to establish their home together. In Juan's absence she develops a close relationship with her enigmatic father-in-law, a charismatic art dealer named Ranz who, though in his seventies, has not lost the charm that enabled him to marry three times despite the fact that his first wife died mysteriously and the second committed suicide upon returning from their honeymoon. 
Juan has never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with his father, and though he cannot put his finger on exactly why, he has great misgivings about the friendship developing between his father and his spouse. Juan's feelings of unease and his difficulty accustoming himself to the conventions of conjugal life are refracted through many lenses: a conversation between a Spaniard and his Cuban lover that Juan and Luisa overhear while they are on their honeymoon in Havana; a one-night-stand that Juan facilitates for his friend and former lover, Berta, while he is staying in her apartment on one of his stints at the UN in New York; and descriptions of Juan's own family history, specifically his father's marriages. Juan is dogged by feelings of dread which seem to become more acute rather than abate the longer he is married.
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While the words are beautiful, A Heart So White is written in extremely long sentences, and readers may lose their concentration half way or feel the need to read every sentence two or three times before they can properly grasp the meaning behind it. Personally, I feel that the first chapter was excellent, the dramatic tenseness in the air, the engaging words made me have very high hopes for the book. But it was all lost once I reach the second chapter. There were a lot of unnecessary events happening through out the book, which made me restless. But it was redeeming towards the end when the pace picked up.

Here are some of my thoughts on it:

Heart, much like Great Expectations, takes on a reflective tone and is structured such that past events parallel the present. Through this form of narrative, the protagonist, Juan, appears as a wiser person who is more knowing. However, throughout the narration, the protagonist showed a strong sense of discomfort at the slow unfolding and revelation of events, he is encasing himself in a safe haven and his father’s confessions robs him of his illusions and taints his impression of his father.

Although Juan claims that he “obliged” Luisa to love him, it seems that he himself was “obliged” into the contractual marriage, epitomizing that marriage is the tombstone of love. Although he does show some degree of affection towards her, he is constantly filled with dread and apprehension for their future. Through repetitively questioning “what now” and demonstrating dismay at the lack of an abstract future, he shows conflicting behaviour of that of newlyweds. Juan is also revealed to be an effeminate character. He thinks highly of himself and his morals, and employs mannerisms of self-justification whenever he catches himself falling short. He justifies his early return from Geneva as a “surprise” for Luisa, trying to pass it off as something nonchalant and fun, covering his real motives in spying on her and trying to catch her off guard, displaying a deep distrust in his wife.

Juan’s dissatisfaction with Luisa also shows through in his subtle hints at her manipulative nature, with words like she “orchestrate[d] the conversation” and “didn’t overplay her persuasiveness” , even though she felt that her actions were for his benefit. Moreover, Juan gives the impression that he is subconsciously jealous of the close bond Luisa has with Ranz and finds it distasteful. His bitterness is apparent when he asked her “You mean you haven’t asked him already? You see enough of each other”. It hints at Juan’s deeper desires to be closer to his father emotionally, but his intimidation by his father falters him, and he is scornful when Luisa gets there before him. However, Juan’s relationship with Ranz drastically improves after his confessions to the murder. His wrongdoing and weakness made the once-perfect father seem now almost human. Where he was once youthful, charismatic and charming, he now suddenly ages speedily in Juan’s opinion, becoming “old” and “weary” as a result of his flaws.

We don’t see as much development in Juan’s marriage though. Where love is supposed to overcome secrecy, Juan does the contrary by keeping secrets from Luisa, attributing them to facts not amounting to the importance of sharing. He also told Luisa “barely credible stories”, one may argue that he is trying to keep Luisa “entertained”, but lies do not build the foundation of marriages. Unlike the speculation he often does with Luisa, we see Juan being more direct and forthcoming with Bertha. He frequently expresses a desire to share his feelings and experiences with this old friend, lamenting that he is unable to see her as often as he likes and that he now has to “store up for much longer all the events and anecdotes…which I habitually keep for her”, exposing his anticipation in seeing and hearing from her, and revealing a desire to be close to her on a psychological level, which is lacking in his relationship with Luisa. References to Bertha and their shared experiences, and Miriam, also interjects the last two chapters. His imagining of Bertha, as opposed to the need to consciously find an abstract future with Luisa, drives home the point.

Love should bring about a desire for intimacy, but we see that lacking in Juan’s marriage. Although they are newlyweds, the touching of bodies does not seem to bring about a provocation of desire. Juan regards physical proximity with Luisa as an invasion of his space and privacy, even though he did not express his discontent explicitly but through the recurring reference to them having to share pillows. Even when their bodies were touching on numerous occasions, it fails to stir Juan’s fantasies. In one instance, Juan’s mind is absentmindedly preoccupied with memories of Miriam even when Luisa’s breasts are “brushing against [his] back in bed”. This lack of lustful arousal lies in stark contrast to his state of mind in just seeing Bertha naked. We see a very different Juan when he throws caution out of the window and engages words like “cunt”, suggesting a heightened state of arousal. It appears that he longs for, and has a deeper and more personalized relationship with Bertha, divulging much more passion and emotions that he ever did with Luisa, where their love is portrayed to be very bland and dull. This leads readers to question his motives in going through with the marriage and if he did it out of a sense of duty, and not love.

Ranz’s self-confidence may be a point of insecurity for Juan, because he constantly compares himself to his father and sees his inferiority embedded in Ranz’s seeming perfection. Hence, the strained and awkward relationship may be a self-protection mechanism on Juan’s part. But he is now able to seek closure and effects emotional bonding because the burden is lifted with the truth coming to light. On the other hand, Juan’s relationship with Luisa seems stagnant, or at a point of stasis. Although he does not deny the attractiveness of Luisa and his affection towards her, he is never enthusiastic about their encounters. She fails to arouse emotions and passion in him, even less so for sexual desires. His reluctance or subtle regret in the entering of the contractual marriage reveals his non-commitment and lack of sense of fidelity, even though he claims that he is slowly getting used to it. In contrast, we see a building up of Juan’s preference for interactions with Bertha, with her interjecting the last two chapters at various points of his narration. Bertha and Miriam may then be a mirroring of his welcoming of future affairs, either for himself, or Luisa.

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