WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING, by Javier Marías. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New Directions, $21.95.) Tales that reveal, by violence, magic or chance, that we all have a place “in the order of dying.”

Having sneaked out of the hotel bed where his wife is sleeping to sit by a pool where a stranger relates a plan to kill his girlfriend before she grows old, the narrator of the title story in Marías’s collection glances nervously back to his own balcony, as if half-suspecting himself of murder. In another story, a soldier returns from war to see his wife strangled by a man who looks exactly like him. Like many of Marías’s narrators, these men are observers whose instinct when confronted with mortal danger is to stand and ruminate. In much of his short fiction, Marías — a Spaniard who spent his 20s translating classics by Conrad and Nabokov, among others — relies on occult devices like doppelgängers and ghosts to remind us of the life-or-death stakes. Other stories, including one in which a butler must dispose of an infant’s corpse, cast their own spells. Few of these tales rise to the level of Marías’s longer works (most of them also adeptly translated by Costa), which build up suspense by punctuating long passages of erudition with moments of brutal violence. But some are quite good on their own terms. Whether by violence, magic or coincidence, they reveal, as one character observes, that “we all have our place in the order of dying.”

JASCHA HOFFMAN

The New York Times, Sunday Book Review, December 24, 2010

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