SPOOLING SPANISH SENTENCES

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Found in Translation: Javier Marías's books are now becoming Penguin Modern Classics. Simon Willis picks the best, "A Heart So White"...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2012

Author Javier Marías
English Title A Heart So White
Original Title Corazón tan blanco (1992)
Original Language Spanish
Translator Margaret Jull Costa

If you have a fondness for the short sentence, Javier Marías is a writer to convince you of the virtues of the very long one. This novel was first published in English in 1995, and won the Dublin IMPAC award in 1997. Now, along with three other Marías books, it is appearing as a Penguin Modern Classic. It was the first of his novels to bear what has since become his signature style: sentences which spool down the page, slipping between times and tenses, story and speculation, experience and memory.

The writing is carefully calibrated to disrupt the reader’s sense of certainty. A shot rings out on the first page of the book, a suicide which has become a dark family secret. The narrator, Juan, gradually uncovers the story behind it, and along the way he meditates on whether we can really know other people, and more startlingly whether we really want to.

Marías’s prose is also subtly repetitive—snatches of thought, dialogue and observation appear again and again, as if acting out the mysterious way in which fragments of the past inflect the present. Juan is an interpreter by trade and one of the joys of the book is the supple meaning wrung from every word and gesture. But interpretation poses a philosophical question too: in trying to understand our lives and the lives of others, do we not embroil ourselves in falsehood?

This is classic Marías and it’s a classic translation. Margaret Jull Costa, who has been working with Marías since the early 1990s, is in the premier league of translators from Spanish, and she renders these complex sentences in elegant and mellifluous English.

A Heart So White Penguin, August 2nd

Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life

Photograph Corbis