The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
The Infatuations is one of a handful of contemporary novels—Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending are two others that come immediately to mind—that made me think after I finished it: This is one of the greatest works of fiction I have ever read. Javier Marías’s latest book, his 12th novel, is both a murder mystery and a philosophical work that dares to confront big moral questions about life, fate, and death. The greatest achievement of this book is that its many long, philosophical insights feel like integral parts of the story rather than digressions. They are, in their quietly devastating way, as exciting as the tale of murder that prompts them.
The narrator of The Infatuations is María Dolz, a thirty-something woman who works for a Madrid publishing house. Every morning before work, she has breakfast at the same café as a couple she has never spoken to but who beguile her with their elegance. The man appears to be around fifty years old and wears expensive suits and tailored shirts. He has a cleft in his chin and reminds María of Kirk Douglas. To María, he is a man “who is simply not prepared to go through life without enjoying its million and one funny sides, even in the midst of difficulties and misfortunes.” His wife is younger and sportier, a woman who favors jeans and “skimpy sandals that revealed delicate feet.” María “didn’t regard them with envy, not at all, but with a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple.”
When the couple does not appear one June morning, María misses her “little morning stimulant” and wonders what happened to them. A colleague gives her the news: The previous evening, a gorrilla (homeless person) named Luis Felipe Vásquez Canella accosted the man, “Miguel Desvern or Deverne,” as María refers to him, accused him of turning Canella’s daughters into prostitutes, and then killed Desvern and his chauffeur. Canella stabbed Desvern sixteen times with a butterfly knife and left him to die in a pool of blood.
María does not see Desvern’s widow, Luisa, until three months later in the café. She approaches Luisa and offers her condolences. Luisa, grateful for the wishes, tells María that she and her husband had noticed her many times—their name for her was the Prudent Young Woman—and asks her to stop by her home for a drink. Over glasses of port, Luisa tells María that she is trying to get on with her life, but it’s hard to accept the advice of well-meaning acquaintances who tell her to remember the good moments and forget the last, bad one. “[A]ll my memories,” she says, “are now soiled by that sad and bloody ending.”
During this visit, a man named Javier Díaz-Varela stops by Luisa’s home. One of Desvern’s closest friends, Díaz-Varela has dropped by to see how Luisa is getting on. Many months later, María sees Díaz-Varela at the Natural History Museum. Even though she is dating another man, she begins an affair with him. The affair goes on for a long time, even after Díaz-Varela admits that his ultimate hope is for Luisa to get over her grief and fall in love with him. This announcement doesn’t shock or upset María as much as a late-night visit she and Díaz-Varela receive from a man named Ruibérriz, who brings news that the circumstances behind Desvern’s murder may be different from those she had been led to believe.
A summary of the plot of The Infatuations won’t do the novel justice. This is a rare breed, an intellectual thriller. Marías writes gorgeous sentences (the English translator is Margaret Jull Costa, who has translated many of the works of José Saramago) and fills the book with dozens of poignant insights about fate, death, and the vagaries of desire.
At one point, María muses that the bereaved “tend to think that the death of a loved one is something that has happened more to them than to the deceased.” She lists artifacts a loved one might leave behind, among them, “the medicines that have suddenly become utterly superfluous and that will soon have to be thrown away, or the special pillow or mattress on which head and body will no longer lie…the sweets someone bought for him and which no one will dare to finish, as if doing so were an act of theft or profanation.”
The Infatuations has many beautiful passages such as these. This is a great novel, one of the finest you will ever read.
Michael Magras’s Blog, August 8, 2013
Uses of Uncertainty
No novel, reflects María Dolz, the narrator of Javier Marías’s The Infatuations, “would ever give houseroom to the infinite number of chances and coincidences that can occur in a single lifetime … It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself.” The world, Marías’s latest novel reminds us, continually exceeds our attempts to account for it through narrative. And whether we find this fact disheartening or encouraging, The Infatuations exemplifies an attitude with which to face it, which is a healthy distrust of the plausible story. Marías gives us, if not houseroom for infinite coincidences, a brilliant meditation on the uncertainty that such distrust entails. His protagonists, faced with situations of life-or-death severity, make of their skepticism a resource: they become essayists in the manner of Montaigne.
The Infatuations is about the aftermath of a senseless and violent murder and the resulting loss of ordinary certainties in life. Dolz opens the novel with news of the death of Miguel Desvern or Deverne (she alternates uncertainly between the names), a man whom she barely knew but who had formed part of her daily routine. She only finds out his name from the newspaper report of his death. Each morning before work, she had seen him and his wife at breakfast at a café, very much in love. The “sight of them together … calmed and contented me before my working day began,” Dolz explains, “as if they provided me with a vision of an orderly, or if you prefer, harmonious world.” Deverne’s apparently unmotivated murder by a homeless man puts an end to a world about which Dolz knew very little but whose abrupt curtailment she experiences as a kind of paradise lost.
With the murder and the rupture of this happy pair Dolz loses a feature of her own life that was reassuring both in the apparent certainty of its recurrence and its lack of demand on her to know anything specific about it. Comfort in modern life, The Infatuations suggests, relies on such thoughtless certainties, on what precisely we don’t need to know about people in order for them to behave in predictable ways (the great sociologist Georg Simmel called this “confidence under complex conditions”). When such certainties are lost, we are apt to become questioners, philosophers—even murder investigators. For Dolz this transformation comes unwillingly: “I lack the detective instinct, it’s just not me.” Her aloofness attracts others and she briefly becomes the confidante of Deverne’s widow, Luisa Alday, and, less briefly, the lover of the dead man’s best friend, Javier Díaz-Varela. Deverne’s murder turns out to be more complicated than first thought, and much of the novel consists of extended dialogues between Dolz and Díaz-Varela on the motivations behind and consequences of this death, and on the relationship between life and fiction (it’s no coincidence that the characters’ first names, compounded, nearly produce the name of their author). The dialogues report on speculation and sometimes are speculation: Dolz, for example, often imagines Díaz-Varela’s thought processes and composes accounts of his former encounters, including those he had with his murdered friend. The layers of prose, each rich and gripping in its own right, are skillfully framed.
There’s a moment in these dialogues when Dolz recounts the nostalgia of Díaz-Varela for the lost decency of hired assassins. Between hit men now, he laments,
There’s no sense of camaraderie, no sense of belonging: if one of them gets caught, tough, let him sort himself out, it was his fault for getting nabbed. He’s expendable, and the organizations accept no responsibility, they’ve taken the necessary measures so that they don’t get tarnished or tainted … And so those who are arrested respond in kind. Nowadays, all anyone cares about is saving his own skin or getting his sentence reduced.
Though it comes in a serious context (an attempt to account for an unaccountable murder), it’s a wry plaint. And not only because the subject matter of organized murder undermines the clichés at hand for lamenting social decay—the disintegration of corporate bonds, the triumph of selfish individualism—but also because it neatly conveys a preoccupation of the novel. To say that hit men aren’t what they used to be is to suggest that the world may be a fallen one—but then it always was. We are never, in fact, falling from former certainties, even when we think we are, because things have never been certain.
And so The Infatuations, whatever else it is, is a novel about the uses to be made of uncertainty. Provoked by the uncertainty surrounding Deverne’s death, Dolz becomes neither a nihilist nor a dogmatist, but adopts the style of an essayist, a speculator on the human condition. It’s a style that avoids certainties and recognizes that life is more complex than any plot. “The truth is never clear,” Dolz comments, “it’s always a tangled mess. Even when you get to the bottom of it. But in real life almost no one needs to find the truth or devote himself to investigating anything, that only happens in puerile novels.” Statements like these are not usually found in murder mysteries: The Infatuations aims to broaden our palates by weaning us from a diet that caters to our craving for certainty.
In place of certainty, we are offered the resources of fiction. The novel suggests that fictions “have the ability to show us what we don’t know and what doesn’t happen,” and this what is like other people’s lives, which we also don’t know, and which don’t happen to us. We can only know other people’s lives in the way we know fictions, and this raises the stakes of fiction. What happens in a fiction matters less, insists Díaz-Varela, than “the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with.”
The novel’s many literary allusions reinforce its preoccupation with the relationship between fiction and life. For instance, Dolz disagrees with Díaz-Varela’s use of the “possibilities and ideas … communicate[d]” by a Balzac novella, Le Colonel Chabert. Díaz-Varela had quoted a catalog of crimes that a character in the novel, the lawyer Derville, offers as evidence of human depravity. In particular, Derville claims he had “seen women administer lethal drops [gouttes] to a legitimate child born of the marriage bed in order to bring about its death and thus benefit a love-child.” But María objects to Díaz-Varela’s translation of the word “gouttes,” and thus to his use of the story. For her, “‘tastes’ (or perhaps ‘inclinations’)” should be substituted for “drops.” She speculates about what to make of this substitution:
The meaning still wasn’t very clear even in that interpretation, nor was it easy to imagine what exactly Derville meant. To give or instil in a child tastes or inclinations that would bring about his death? Drink or opium or gambling or a tendency to criminal behaviour perhaps? A taste for luxury that he would be unable to give up and that would lead him to commit crimes in order to satisfy that taste? A morbid lust that would expose him to diseases or propel him into rape? A character so weak and fearful that the slightest setback would drive him to suicide? It was obscure and almost enigmatic.
This version, Dolz reflects, might point to an even more perverse and sustained crime than outright murder: more horrifying because more plausible, and because a mother might easily claim she never intended to commit it. A well-meaning mother could raise a monster out of good intentions and excessive compliance.
This quibble about a single word hints at The Infatuations’ picture of human relations, at “the possibilities and ideas” that this novel “communicates to us.” Instead of the direct, intended actions of one person upon another, Marías offers something more “obscure and almost enigmatic.” People indirectly bring others to ruin all the time; equally indirectly, they enliven and restore them. But how are we to tell when and how this happens? And yet it is a difference that makes all the difference. The Infatuations is such a brilliantly disturbing novel because it raises doubts about whether any narrative can explain anything fully enough; and it implicitly enjoins on us closer attention to the high stakes of our everyday uncertainties.
Public Books, February 1, 2014
It is the habit of María Dolz, a prudent young woman who works in a nearby publishing house, to have breakfast every morning before work at a certain café in Madrid. There, she regularly and contentedly observes Miguel and Luisa Desverne, a husband and wife who she comes to think of as the Perfect Couple. Sometime later, she is shocked to learn that the husband has been brutally stabbed on the street near his home.
“’What happened is the least of it.’”
While coming to grips with the sudden death of someone she barely knows, María meets Desverne’s wife and Javier, his best friend. As she becomes entangled with Javier, she gradually discovers that the murder was not random. In this contemplative and literary novel by award-winning Spanish author Marías what happens is of far less importance than how possibilities and events are interpreted by the main characters. More a philosophical essay than a psychological thriller and more emotionally reflective than suspenseful, this is the story of a murder that is, at the same time, just a murder and much more.
Portland Book Review, February 3, 2014