A fine murder story is like a great love affair: an infinite catacomb of excitement, sorrow and desire. Apart from tales of love and death, what else matters to mankind’s stone-age brain? While we continue to push back the frontiers of knowledge, most recently in digital technology, our consciousness remains hard-wired with some very primitive storylines. The lasting challenge to literature is to achieve a satisfying marriage between high art and the low drives of a simple plot. The latter is usually much more demanding than the former. To find such a rapprochement in the pages of a novel is indeed a rare treat.
This is where Javier Marías, one of Spain’s greatest contemporary writers, steps into the picture. The son of a victim of Franco’s dictatorship, Marías is a characteristically European version of the literary man. He works as a distinguished translator, has a column in El País, and runs his own publishing house. He is also the author of two short story collections and 13 novels whose lyrical, conversational, and even errant, style has sponsored widespread literary admiration. There’s an irony here because, rather appealingly, Marías writes as if there were many other, better things to do. At his investiture into the Royal Spanish Academy in 2008, he confessed that the work of the novelist was “pretty childish”, a teasing line of thought derived from Robert Louis Stevenson. His other exemplars are Joseph Conrad and Laurence Sterne. So it’s no accident that he went on to argue that the writer “can only tell stories about what has never happened, the invented and the imagined”.
The Infatuations is just such a novel, a murder story of archetypal simplicity whose slow unravelling becomes a vehicle for all the big questions about life, love and death. There are passages on almost every page that cry out for quotation. This may be a literary and metaphysical fiction, but it’s never boring. Marías plays with perception, memory and guilt like a toreador. With every flourish of his literary cape, the enthralled reader is never allowed to forget that, in the end, the author will make a killing. Just as Macbeth is a thriller that’s also a great tragedy, The Infatuations is a murder story that’s also a profound study of fatal obsession.
A story that might have been torn from a crumpled page of Home News starts with el enamoramiento, a Spanish term for which there is no English equivalent – the state of falling or being in love, or perhaps infatuation. María Dolz, a publisher’s editor, has become fascinated by the glamorous couple she sees every day in the cafe where she takes breakfast on her way to work. “The nicest thing about them,” says María, “was seeing how much they enjoyed each other’s company.” Then, one day, they are no longer there, and María feels lost without them. Later, when she sees a newspaper photograph of the husband, lying stabbed in the street, she begins to learn more about this mysterious couple and to uncover their story.
She becomes infatuated by the infatuees. When her own romantic life, brilliantly imagined by Marías, links her to the murdered man’s widow, Luisa, an apparently random killing becomes, inexorably, a much darker tale of calculated homicide. In the process, María the narrator becomes an unwitting accomplice to a dreadful crime, a young woman trapped in a prison of guilt. “No one is going to judge me,” she says at the end with a doomed insouciance, “there are no witnesses to my thoughts.” It’s a terrifying conclusion to a haunting masterpiece of chilling exposition.
The Infatuations has already been showered with awards and acclaim. With this exemplary translation, Penguin adds a European master to its distinguished list of contemporary international fiction. Great Spanish novels don’t come along too often, but they sometimes find a place in the hearts of the British reading public. The full text of Don Quixote was first published as long ago as 1620. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Infatuations soon acquired an equally devoted following.
The Observer, 10 March 2013