Jeffrey Keeten's Reviews > A Heart So White

A Heart So White by Javier Marías
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it was amazing
Recommended to Jeffrey by: Kris

”Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out about something and knowing what’s going on, our ears don’t have lids that can instinctively close against the words uttered, they can’t hide from what they sense they’re about to hear, it’s always too late.”

Juan is trained to listen to people. He is a professional translator, so when he is listening to conversations it comes in his ears in one language and comes out his mouth in another language. He is the only person in the room that fully understands the conversation. His job is to make sure there are no misunderstandings. When he meets Luisa for the first time she is the person there to insure that he is doing his job properly while translating a conversation between two heads of state. Juan slips in his own suggestions into the translations, a puppet master, which he is not supposed to do. He is really just flirting with Luisa and seeing what she will do.

Wouldn’t life be easier if we could just write the dialogue for other people? Your spouse, your friends, your coworkers. If only we could stop time, our own fermata key, and scrub out an errant response and just rewrite it, but then life would be a novel where all the dialogue is pitch perfect. Conversations are very messy. Think of the fumbling around and miscues that lead to misunderstandings. Sometimes it is hours later before our minds conjure up what would have been the best possible words in the best possible arrangement.

Juan has that power. He can clean up conversations and gently nudge events in a direction that he feels will lead to a more productive exchange of words. It is kind of scary actually.

Javier Marias tips us off to what is on his mind with the very title of this book.

My hands are of your color; but I shame
To wear a heart so white.
Macbeth William Shakespeare


He carefully weaves the thread of Macbeth throughout the novel. What we hear can not be unheard. When we know, we are complicit.

As I was making notes about some of the more striking passages of Marias writing, which began to get ridiculous, especially, when I made the realization that I was noting something on nearly every page, I discovered that he is not a writer concerned with pithy beautiful one liners. He uses whole paragraphs with complex thoughts circling one another like a dance. I found myself thinking I understood what he was saying only to read it again and find another layer and another layer until I’m convinced, despite the archaeological dig I’ve performed on his words, that I’m still missing something very important hidden in the hieroglyphics of his intentions.

”If nothing of what happens happens, because nothing happens without interruption, nothing lasts or endures or is ceaselessly remembered, what takes place is identical to what doesn’t take place, what we dismiss or allow to slip by us is identical to what we accept and seize, what we experience is identical to what we never try; we pour all our intelligence and our feelings and our enthusiasm into the task of discriminating between things that will all be made equal, if they haven't already been, and that’s why we're so full of regrets and lost opportunities, of confirmations and reaffirmations and opportunities grasped, when the truth is that nothing is affirmed and everything is constantly in the process of being lost. Or perhaps there never was anything.”

Juan marries Luisa although I do wonder if he loves her or if he just felt it was time to get married. He does ponder, with such objectivity, the advantages of sleeping with someone, not in regards to sex, but all the other things such as comfort, not being alone, and the pleasantness of knowing that someone you trust literally has your back. Juan/Javier wants to understand everything, even those mundane things, that the rest of us accept, without thinking about. Why do we do what we do?

I’ve been overlooking a lot I’m afraid. Life needs to leave more juice on my chin.

Juan’s job and Luisa’s as well, though less so now that she has married, takes them away for work sometimes eight weeks at a time. He ends up in New York staying with a friend and fellow translator, Berta, who he once had a relationship fifteen years. I don’t think that Luisa knows that they had a fling because I can’t imagine anyone would feel comfortable with their spouse hanging out with any old flame. As it turns out Luisa has nothing to worry about, whatever spark was once there is no longer striking the flint. Juan becomes caught up in Berta’s search for a new man. Lets just say things become more strange/comical the more he tries to help her. He is surprised to find that the longer he is away the more he has twinges of the green eyed monster in regards to the family friend... Custardoy the Younger.

Custardoy the Older was the original best friend of Juan’s father Ranz, but after he passed away Custardoy the Younger stepped into his father’s shoes. Custardoy knows things about Juan’s father that Juan doesn’t know, not necessarily because his father has meant to withhold these things from his son, but with all children we tell them edited versions of the truth expecting at some point when they are older to tell them more.

Custardoy is the type of guy that you would not feel comfortable leaving your wife, girlfriend, pet chinchilla, or any female friend you care for at all alone with him. He has, in Juan’s opinion, a bit of a fixation on Luisa although this is easily disregarded (but not totally so) because Custardoy has a fixation on any reasonably attractive female that happens to pass by in range of his lascivious eyes.

Luisa becomes obsessed with learning Ranz’s secrets. She knows that due to his affection for her that she can wrangle them from him. Juan is unsure he wants to know. His relationship with his father is very good and there is always the possibility that knowing more will change the dynamics of what has really become a friendship beyond just father and son. Luisa’s insistence is slightly annoying, but then a novelist can’t dangle something like this and not come through for us. There are a lot of people that insist knowing everything is preferable to not knowing. I tend to fall into the category of never wanting to pry. If people want to tell me something then I’m happy to listen, but I never want to be the guy that corners anyone into telling me anything they don’t want to tell me.

We learn a lot about secrets as we grow older, maybe because we start to accumulate them. Some people like to be open books telling everyone, even strangers, the most intimate details of their lives. Telling someone something in confidence is usually the same thing as telling everyone. They tend to tell someone your secret “in confidence” and so on and so forth until everyone eventually knows. If you want to keep something secret you must bear the burden of telling no one. Ranz tells Custardoy something confidential. Custardoy intimates that he knows this secret to Juan. Juan then discusses this disturbing if incomplete knowledge he acquired from Custardoy with Luisa.

Luisa must know the rest.

After all wouldn’t it be best for all their interlocking relationships for the truth to be known?

You might think to yourself what a slender volume this is at 246 pages.You might be fooled into thinking it will consume an afternoon, but that will not be the case. The book will consume days mainly because you will quickly find that you must not be disturbed, in the slightest, when you are reading this book. Thoughts trek across paragraphs and on into pages. You must follow the string of evolving concepts or you will be lost. You will probably need to reread passages anyway, but it would be tragic if you missed something merely because you think this is novel, an entertainment, a killer of time. Marias captures you in a page and holds you hostage. He demands that you listen and think and think some more. You will emerge from reading this novel with more astute eyes. You will ponder your new self and realize that Marias has shared much more with you than a few interesting insights, but actually something more akin to a philosophy.

Don’t be afraid. This is why we read after all. Highly Recommended!

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Reading Progress

August 15, 2012 – Shelved
April 26, 2014 – Started Reading
May 28, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 84 (84 new)


Garima Oh! This makes me happy. I really hope you enjoy reading Marias. This is one of my favorites.


Kris So happy to see those 5 stars!


Kalliope Haha, I can see that Marías enveloped you with his writing too.


Jeffrey Keeten Garima wrote: "Oh! This makes me happy. I really hope you enjoy reading Marias. This is one of my favorites."

Excellent! I hope to get to a review very soon.


Jeffrey Keeten Kris wrote: "So happy to see those 5 stars!"

It will be a nice wrestling match figuring out how best to review this. Somehow it always turns out. I have more trepidation at the start than is warranted usually.


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "Haha, I can see that Marías enveloped you with his writing too."

It is as if I know him or at least that I know his characters. Nice twist to the plot to make a further point about what we want to know and why we want to know it.


Kalliope I was waiting for this, Jeffrey....

Perfect closing paragraph...

Marias captures you in a page and holds you hostage. He demands that you listen and think and think some more..

So, Marías got you too..


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "I was waiting for this, Jeffrey....

Perfect closing paragraph...

Marias captures you in a page and holds you hostage. He demands that you listen and think and think some more..

So, Marías got yo..."


Yeah, he is another one of those writers that as I'm reading his work I can't believe I haven't read him before. Kris was good enough to rattle the tree and get me to see what I've been missing. Thanks Kalliope!


message 9: by Lynne (last edited May 30, 2014 12:27PM) (new) - added it

Lynne King "Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out about something and knowing what’s going on, our ears don’t have lids that can instinctively close against the words uttered, they can’t hide from what they sense they’re about to hear, it’s always too late.”

I actually disagree with the first sentence here Jeffrey. We can indeed listen, as I often do, but we can get the wrong message. Life is a personal interpretation... We can be mistaken...


Jeffrey Keeten Lynne wrote: ""Listening is the most dangerous thing of all, listening means knowing, finding out about something and knowing what’s going on, our ears don’t have lids that can instinctively close against the wo..."

So nice to see you back. I thought for sure you'd run off with some French Poet or an Italian Stallion. :-)

Listening is important, much more so than talking for sure, and usually the wrong message is sent or received because we weren't listening closely enough. I hadn't really thought about the fact of how defenseless we are when it comes to our sense of hearing. We can close our eyes, but we can't close our ears. We are told many things we don't want to hear.


message 11: by Lynne (last edited May 30, 2014 12:46PM) (new) - added it

Lynne King I rather like what you have stated here Jeffrey. It has caused me to think.

As for running off with a French poet (what a ghastly thought) and as for the Italian stallion - do they actually exist? I couldn't handle one anyway. Too much hard work in more ways than one.


message 12: by Ted (new) - added it

Ted will bmark, Jeffrey - great review and a great recommendation!


message 13: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Delighted to see you enjoying Marías, Jeffrey. I didn't read your entire review because I haven't read this particular book yet but I could see that you had picked up on his enigmatic style - great quotes too - you're so right about him not delivering bite sized phrases but rather long beautifully written passages which tie the reader nicely in knots. He's just such a master of intrigue, not only in the story he sets before us but in his manipulation of our reading of that story. As you say in your great last paragraph, Marías holds us hostage, makes us complicit, and nobody emerges unscathed.


message 14: by Dhandayutha (new)

Dhandayutha Interesting.will read it.


Jeffrey Keeten Ted wrote: "will bmark, Jeffrey - great review and a great recommendation!"

Thank you Ted! I have a feeling you will really like this author. You are most welcome!


Jeffrey Keeten Fionnuala wrote: "Delighted to see you enjoying Marías, Jeffrey. I didn't read your entire review because I haven't read this particular book yet but I could see that you had picked up on his enigmatic style - great..."

There will be many more Marias in my future and soon. I'm already buzzing with the thought of reading another one of his books. There is certainly a languidness to him that is seductive. He isn't ever in a hurry to make his points. Some readers will need patience with him, but if they hang with him the rewards will astound them. Thank you Fionnuala!


message 17: by Sue (new) - added it

Sue Oh Jeffrey...another for my list. Does it matter where one starts with Marias?


message 18: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris Terrific review, Jeffrey! So many great passages -- this is particularly apt: "He uses whole paragraphs with complex thoughts circling one another like a dance."


Jeffrey Keeten Dhandayutha wrote: "Interesting.will read it."

I hope you enjoy him as much as I did. Superb writer for the discerning reader.


Jeffrey Keeten Sue wrote: "Oh Jeffrey...another for my list. Does it matter where one starts with Marias?"

I think this is a good one for you to start with. It was the one that Kris recommended to me.


Jeffrey Keeten Kris wrote: "Terrific review, Jeffrey! So many great passages -- this is particularly apt: "He uses whole paragraphs with complex thoughts circling one another like a dance.""

Thanks Kris! I'm glad you are pleased as you were the instigator of me reading and reviewing this book.


message 22: by Kris (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kris And you in turn are an instigator for many others to read him. Nicely done! :)


message 23: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl I love a multilayered book, Jeffrey. Thanks for the introduction.


Kalliope This was also my first Marías although I have read recently one of his earlier ones. He certainly has his own style.


Garima So glad you loved this, Jeffrey. Excellent review!


message 26: by Fionnuala (new)

Fionnuala Jeffrey wrote: "There will be many more Marias in my future and soon. I'm already buzzing with the thought of reading another one of his books. There is certainly a languidness to him that is seductive. He isn't ever in a hurry to make his points. Some readers will need patience with him, but if they hang with him the rewards will astound them. Thank you Fionnuala!"

Seductive is his trademark indeed, Jeffrey, and thanks for taking the time to answer my overlong comment - I was just so happy to get a chance to discuss Marías' writing - what I've read so far has both thrilled and disturbed me so I grab at any opportunity to discuss him with others.


message 27: by Melanie (new) - added it

Melanie Jeffrey, what a review, I'm quickly collecting favourites of yours, this is inching to the top.


message 28: by kristina (new)

kristina awesome review


message 29: by Dolors (last edited May 31, 2014 08:56AM) (new)

Dolors Masterful introductory passages on the impossibility of capturing the elusive meaning of written and oral signs such as language which later builds on with that incisive description of Marías intricate writing. The imbalance of disturbing secrets, sneaky truth and improbable relationships find their way out in your inimitable comic tilt that serves a the perfect pot to brew your meaty conclusions. Juicy and tasteful review as ever Jeffrey. Simply palatable.


message 30: by kristina (new)

kristina ill probaly read that sometime


Jeffrey Keeten Cheryl wrote: "I love a multilayered book, Jeffrey. Thanks for the introduction."

If you like multilayered you will love this book Cheryl. You are most welcome!


Jeffrey Keeten Kalliope wrote: "This was also my first Marías although I have read recently one of his earlier ones. He certainly has his own style."

He won't appeal to a wide audience, but a segment of readers will love the way he challenges his readers. I can't wait to read more.


Jeffrey Keeten Garima wrote: "So glad you loved this, Jeffrey. Excellent review!"

Your review was excellent! I'm so glad that I didn't read it before writing mine or I would have felt more than a little intimidation. Thanks Garima for your review and your kind comments here.


Jeffrey Keeten Fionnuala wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "There will be many more Marias in my future and soon. I'm already buzzing with the thought of reading another one of his books. There is certainly a languidness to him that is seduc..."

I thought your comment was fantastic. There is no such thing as an overlong Fionnuala comment. I understand your excitement about this writer. I've only just finished this book and I'm starting to jones for the next one. I love your enthusiasm!


Jeffrey Keeten Melanie wrote: "Jeffrey, what a review, I'm quickly collecting favourites of yours, this is inching to the top."

Melanie I can't imagine you not liking this book. I look forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks Melanie!


Jeffrey Keeten kristina wrote: "awesome review"

Thanks Kristina!


Jeffrey Keeten Dolors wrote: "Masterful introductory passages on the impossibility of capturing the elusive meaning of written and oral signs such as language which later builds on with that incisive description of Marías intri..."

At first I was thinking maybe I served you some light, but spicy Spanish lunch. On further thought I think I've served you dinner, nine courses, in a German restaurant with dark beer, rare steak, potatoes, followed by a full bodied red wine. The whole meal of course enhanced by the sparkling conversation. I do believe that Marias is a good fit for the reader from Barcelona. Thank you as always for your kindly support of my scribbling!


Anthony schillaci On this is good


message 39: by kristina (new)

kristina im kinda new on this thing and i really need friends if you can please friend me


message 40: by kristina (new)

kristina i am kinda new on this thing i need friends if you can please friend me


Jeffrey Keeten Kristina we are friends already.


Jeffrey Keeten Anthony schillaci wrote: "On this is good"

The book is great Anthony!


message 43: by Forrest (new)

Forrest If I were ever forced to write a list of "Reviews that compel me to add a book to my TBR list because of the reviewer's insights and passion for the work," your reviews would appear many, many times on that list. Thanks for hooking me again . . . I think . . . :)


message 44: by kristina (new)

kristina i know


Jeffrey Keeten Forrest wrote: "If I were ever forced to write a list of "Reviews that compel me to add a book to my TBR list because of the reviewer's insights and passion for the work," your reviews would appear many, many time..."

What a wonderful thing to say Forrest! I'm glad my passion for these writers is being conveyed in my reviews. You are so supportive. Thank you my friend! I hope you do get a chance to read this one.


message 46: by Erwin (new) - added it

Erwin Great review, Jeffrey. It is always nice to be introduced to someone new (to me anyways) in this way. Thanks you


Jeffrey Keeten Erwin wrote: "Great review, Jeffrey. It is always nice to be introduced to someone new (to me anyways) in this way. Thanks you"

Thank you Erwin and you are most welcome. I think you'll like Marias!


message 48: by Glenn (new)

Glenn Russell Fine review. On the topic of listening, you might find the practice of nada yoga worth investigating. The ancient yogis were keenly aware of the power of sound and listening to the inner sound, the nadam, valuable in connecting with the universe. Curiously, in the West, the nadam is referred to as tinnitus and there isn't a word about using the experience of tinnitus as a spiritual practice.


message 49: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Puma Glad to see your first dipped toe into JM was so enthusiastically received--even if it was with the only translated JM title I haven't read yet. I need to remedy that.


Jeffrey Keeten Glenn wrote: "Fine review. On the topic of listening, you might find the practice of nada yoga worth investigating. The ancient yogis were keenly aware of the power of sound and listening to the inner sound, t..."

Fascinating Glenn! Unfortunately due to a stiff pair of hips any mention of yoga makes me flinch, but their focus on inner sound is definitely intriguing. I will have to explore further. Thanks Glenn!


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